PRESENT LAUGHTER - At the Eisenhower Theater through December 9.
Noel coward wrote "Present Laughter," playing at the Kennedy Center through December 9, as a vehicle for himself. Forty years later it remains for the most part bright and brittle, and serves very well as an extended - even overlong - star turn for Peter O'Toole.
Coward was then, as O'Toole is now, a famous, energetic and accomplished artist in his 40s past his physical prime but showing every promise of growing endlessly richer in his craft.
"Laughter" is a drawing-room/bedroom farce with a dash of bitters, a play about a player trying to get ready to play an extended tour while playing around with the people and players around him. It's a nervy affair, because of O'Toole's supporting players deliver line after line accusing him of acting, so that the show is a play about a play within a play and requires not just willing but a willful suspension of disbelief.
It's the measure of O'Toole power that he brings it off, and if he didn't race through some of the key lines like a tobacco auctioneer perhaps the character of Garry Essendine would ring with the bell-like tones one expects from an actor who combines Richard Burton's mellifluous voice with Cary Grant's dapper grace.
Lost lines are unavoidable in fast-paced comedy, but that was not why a quarter of the first-act dialogue never made it beyond the footlights. The early scenes move in fits and starts, jerked alony by the lines that could be heard. the Play gathers steam through the second and third acts, and toward the end it's possible to understand almost half of the lines delivered by James B. Douglas as Fred the valet, and fully two-thirds of O'Toole's. No doubt some of the lines are superannuated, but in that case they should be dispensed with altogether rather than spit out or swallowed.
John Jensen's high-"30s set is perfect, telling us instantly and reminding us throughout that "Laughter" is a period piece. Otherwise, in this day of the shameless groupie, we might wonder why the women who force their attention on O'Toole feel it necessary to explain how they happened to wake up in the star's apartment wearing the star's pajamas.
The "Laughter" company is Canadian and accomplished, although the timing and characterizations are not as precise and vivid as they should be for a show that's been on the road for some time.
In order of appearance: Maureen McRae tries to make more of her bit-o'-fluff part than it can carry, so that she's at once appealing and a little tiresome. Maggie Askey does fine turns as the cleaning lady, but uses a different accent in each act. Marie Kean, playing Essendine's secretary, and Jackie Burroughs, as his once and future wife, supply the strength that's needed to carry the play while O'Toole is developing Essendine from a caricature into a character. Peter Dvorsky's is energetic and engaging if not wholly convincing as a zany young would-be playwright. Claude Bede and understudy Rod Menzies glene about all there is to be had from their slight parts. Barbara Gordon is a fine bitch. Sheila Haney bears up under the brief burden of the Lady Saltburn walk-on.
"Present Laughter," although no classic, is well worth doing. But either read Coward's book beforehand or take an ear trumpet.