Laura Hanson, left, and Ann Flannigan are cast members in “Present Laughter” at Harlequin Productions’ State Theater. Scot Whitney Courtesy
Laura Hanson, left, and Ann Flannigan are cast members in “Present Laughter” at Harlequin Productions’ State Theater. Scot Whitney Courtesy

Arts & Culture

‘Present Laughter’ peeks into life of actor-playwright Noël Coward

By Molly Gilmore

Contributing writer

May 03, 2017 07:11 AM

Though it was written in 1939, Noël Coward’s “Present Laughter” is very much present on the theatrical scene.

The farce, in its opening weekend at Harlequin Productions’ State Theater, is also running on Broadway, where it stars Oscar- and Tony-winner Kevin Kline.

In Olympia, the star is Aaron Lamb of Seattle, a frequent Harlequin actor (“To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The 39 Steps,” to name a couple of starring roles) and director (“Hedda Gabler”).

The nifty twist: Harlequin’s Scot and Linda Whitney made the decision to produce their first-ever Coward show — at Lamb’s suggestion — before the Kline revival was announced. That production, which opened April 5, is the show’s fifth Broadway run.

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“Laughter” — about a middle-age actor named Garry Essendine who can’t stop performing, even offstage, and his entourage — is a perennial favorite in part because it’s a great star vehicle. Small wonder, since Coward wrote the play for and about himself.

“I love that Garry is Noël Coward’s own autobiographical caricature,” Lamb said in an email Monday.

“It’s a satire of what it was like in (Coward’s) studio when he was at the apex of his career,” director Linda Whitney said last week. “He’d been working on stage since he was about 12 years old, and he’d started writing in his teens and become enormously popular. He felt comfortable that writing a satire on his own life would sell well, and it did.”

While it begins with Essendine trying to recover from an impromptu sleepover with a smitten ingénue (Marianna de Fazio, who’s new to Harlequin), the show has much to say about office politics, though the office is Essendine’s lavishly decorated apartment.

“These are grownups dealing with career issues,” Whitney said. “Garry is part of a small-business consortium with his estranged wife and two associate producers and his secretary, and he has an eccentric household staff. It’s fun to get a look at all these different personalities and how they relate to one another.”

His relationship with wife Liz (Laura Hanson) isn’t only business. Though the two have lived separately for years, they remain best friends. “That stretches our preconceptions,” Whitney said. “Given that it was written nearly 80 years ago, it’s strangely timely.”

Helen Harvester, Lamb’s wife and frequent co-star, plays Joanna, another woman angling for Essendine, though she’s married to a wealthy producer, Hugo (Bruce Haasl).

Also part of the chaos that ensues are Maggie Ferguson-Wagstaffe, Ann Flannigan, Xander Layden, Gabriel McClelland and Dennis Rolly.

The role of Essendine is often played by actors old enough to join AARP. Kline is 69. Lamb, though, is the perfect age for the part, Whitney said. He’s 42, the same age Coward was when he first played his alter ego in 1942.

Lamb played the role once before, while in graduate school in California — when he was, he agreed, too young for it — and was eager to revisit it. He’s drawn to the era, a time when theater actors were the biggest stars of the day.

And he enjoys the challenge of playing a character he describes as “an overbearing, affected egomaniac and an egregious over-actor” and discovering what makes him relatable and even lovable.

“I’ve always been drawn to characters that don’t seem likable at first read,” he said. “I find that the truest duty an actor owes is to find out how that character is true and honest and good and wonderful, even with all their faults.”

Present Laughter

What: Harlequin Productions presents its first Noël Coward play, a classic farce based on the life of the celebrated actor-playwright.

When: 8 p.m. Friday (May 5), Saturday, May 10-13, 18-20 and 25-27, and 2 p.m. Sunday as well as May 14 and 21.

Where: State Theater, 202 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia.

Tickets: $34; $31 for seniors and military; $20 for youth and students. For the May 10 show, pay what you can.

Information: 360-786-0151, harlequinproductions.org.