Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
There is merry irony on the Eisenhower stage, where Noel Coward's "Present Laughter" and star Peter O'Toole seem hand-tooled for each other. Through no fault of his own. O'Toole's public image suggests the late 1950s and '60s, when Coward was scorned by England's Angry Young Men. Coward is outlasting his critics, and an Eisenhower visit through Dec. 9 will be rewarding.
This is the comedy about a few days in the life of a popular stage star: the people and cabals around him, the hangers-on who barge into his very public private life. the play is markedly autobiographical, with such figures as secretary, house-keeper and valet inspired by those who did perform such services for Destiny's Tot.
And Coward is speaking very much for himself when, at the end of Act I, he stirs himself enough to give advice to an angry young playwright:
"Your play is not a play at all. It's a meaningless jumble of adolescent, pseudo-intellectual poppycock. It bears no relation to the theater or to life or to anything . . . if you wish to be a playwright you just leave the theater of tomorrow to take care of itself. Go and get yourself a job as a butler in a repetory company if they'll have you. Learn from the ground up how plays are constructed and what is actable and what isn't. Then sit down and write at least 20 plays one after the other, and if you can manage to get the 21st produced for a Sunday night performance, you'll be damned lucky."
O'Toole handles this - and everything else about his role of Gary Essendine - with skillful relish. That speech reflects, to a degree, what he himself did to become the fine actor that he is, a matter easily lost sight of through his quite misleading public persona.
For O'Toole's record shows that though he got his major celebrity through films, he got his training through the ranks, 73 rep roles in less than four years. And he polished his craft in theater's great plays, with both the Royal Shakespeare and National Theater comapanies. While I've also seen hims do some dullish, modern plays in London, he's done the great parts with dashing expertise. His techniques for Garry Essendine include facial timings and vocal tricks (such as throw-aways and vocal scales), details fine actors learn in the doing, demands quite different from the intimacy of the camera.
He also brings to the play a virile ease it did not have at its first. American performance some 30 years ago at the National, when Clifton Webb injected a bitchy tone into the part wholly at odds with Coward's intent. Coward left the tryout to fend for itself in New York, and some years later played in it himself in this country in a rep tour with his also-scorned "Nude with Violin." Both Nigel Patrick and O'Toole have spun it into long revival runs in London, and only three years ago Douglas Fairbanks Jr. acted it at the Eisenhower.
So, the play with its silken lines and sturdy construction has had an almost surprisingly long life. Time has proved that its portrait of an intelligent, if zany, actor was just as true as the new truths projected by Coward's scorners of a generation ago.
The company was formed for Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theater, a Canadian landmark, and it is, on the whole, an efficient one. Jackie Burroughs is an assured actress for the wife who moved out and decides to move back in. Maggie Askey, James B. Douglas and Marie Kean are fine as the housekeeper, valet and secretary who reflect Coward's real-life entourage. Barbara Gordon makes a handsome trouble-maker, and though Peter Dvorsky suggests the 1970s more than the '30s, his hero-worshiping playwright works well with the audience.