Noel Coward's "Present Laughter" is nothing more, really, than a portrait of the artist as a charming egotist. The central character is the reigning light comedian of the English stage; he's wry, vain and a tad spoiled; and he's named Garry Essendine. But make no mistake; it's really Coward himself.
There are one or two concessions to dramatic license in this 1942 comedy. When he's not absorbed by his own brilliance, Essendine allows himself to bed down a fair number of attractive ladies--a pursuit that was never exactly Coward's. But the snappish wit, the irrepressible superiority, the conviction that life is best led when it's led skimmingly on the surface -- this is Coward with a capital C. If Destiny's Tot was clearly poking fun at his public image as a "great, glorious sun" among a host of lesser lights, there are between-the-line glimmers of a deeper truth -- the loneliness, maybe, that attended his gilded life.
It would not seem, therefore, to make a great deal of sense to put gruff, raspy-voiced, bear-like George C. Scott -- he was Gen. Patton, after all -- in a role of such rarefied sensibilities. But Scott is nothing if not an actor, and actors do like to stretch. As the director and star of this essentially frivolous bauble, he has given the Circle in the Square one of its bigger successes in recent seasons. I doubt that Coward would have relished this production, which points the play in the direction of a Jackie Gleason "Honeymooners" sketch. But audiences do. What was to have been an end-of-summer run has now been extended through the new year.
Since the American theater seems to be momentarily bereft of actors who exercise Coward's special appeal, it may well be the time to look for other possibilities in the play. What Scott has looked for, apparently, is knockabout vaudeville. The plot is merely three acts of traffic in and out of Essendine's sleek Art Deco studio in London: women, who claim to have lost their house keys and consequently come begging a night's lodgings; an aspiring playwright with the personality of a blister and the persistence of fly paper; phlegmatic servants, blustering business associates, and -- the two notes of relative sanity in the whirlwind -- Essendine's secretary and his former wife.
Besides setting the wits flying, Scott wants to see the bodies fly. The characters hurl themselves backwards onto couches, collapse over the grand piano (and sometimes under it), and Scott himself winds up prostrate on the floor in a fist-pounding tantrum. Where Coward would have restrained himself -- if only not to wrinkle his dressing gown -- Scott revels in throwing his weight around.
That Scott dominates this production is probably just as well, since most of the supporting performances are either uninspired or baldly hokey. The only other standout is Dana Ivey, as Essendine's secretary, as smart with her quips as she is with her wardrobe. Ivey plays Coward with a crispness that puts celery to shame. Hers is the proper stance -- above the rough house. Scott can't quite manage it; he may not even want to. Slumped in a chair, suffering the indignities of his inferiors until he can no longer stand it, he looks rather like a hung-over rhino. Then his nostrils flare, his slippered feet paw the white carpet and he charges. The behavior is excessive, but on its own broad terms, perfectly entertaining.
Nonetheless, we're still privy to a mismatch -- the sort of mismatch you might get if Martha Raye, for example, played Dorothy Parker. Or Liz Taylor played Amanda in "Private Lives." Liz fully intends to, incidentally, if recent announcements hold any water. Richard Burton will co-star, and while the whole affair will no doubt be immensely interesting to watch, not to mention colossally lucrative for the producers, one can rightfully ask just what it will do to perpetuate Coward's blithe spirit.
The question also arises, as the bores and opportunists of "Present Laughter" lay siege to Essendine's life. Scott is ever popping open his cornflower-blue eyes in wonder, legitimately surprised by the deluge of unexpected company. But sometimes I thought that it was Scott himself, Billy Goat Gruff in person, who was surprised. What, the look seemed to ask, am I doing in Coward's silken drawers?
PRESENT LAUGHTER. By Noel Coward. Directed by Goerge C. Scott. Sets, Marjorie Bradley Kellogg; costumes, Ann Roth; lighting, Richard Nelson. With George C. Scott, Christine Lahti, Dana Ivey, Nathan Lane, Elizabeth Hubbard. At the Circle in the Square.