English playwright, lyricist, actor, director and late-in-life Las Vegas entertainer Noel Coward was one of the wittiest people of the 20th century, his very name synonymous with sparkling repartee. Yet most people probably don't know many lines of Noel Coward dialogue.
The Reston Community Players are giving audiences an opportunity to experience Coward's wordplay with their presentation of his farce "Present Laughter," written in 1939 and first staged in 1942 with Coward himself in the lead role.
But don't think of it as an educational experience; you'll enjoy this well-honed and quite funny production.
Garry Essendine is an aging actor, a narcissistic charmer Coward admitted was an exaggerated heterosexual version of himself. With Coward long gone, veteran Reston actor Don Paul Smith ably steps into the role of the thespian who inspires infatuation in almost everyone he meets.
His London studio is invaded by a constant parade of lovers, a sort-of ex-wife, various lawyers and managers, a deranged fan/playwright and the house staff.
Before long, women are hiding in bedrooms, a young man is running around in a garter belt and black stockings and, well, the plot is unimportant, as it is the clash of egos and scalpel-sharp wit that propel the play.
Smith plays Garry as a man who has blurred the line between his real life and life on the stage, often seeming to resort to theater dialogue to extricate himself from social situations. His movement is always larger than life, and he is always projecting to the back rows and posing as he launches his bombastic broadsides.
Garry, to his efficient secretary, acerbically played by Lauren Smith: "I do envy you, Monica; you're so unruffled and efficient. You go churning through life like some frightening old warship."
Monica: "Thank you, dear. That sounds most attractive. Good night."
Garry: "Good night. Your propeller's showing."
This play just sounds funny. The lead actors have developed wonderfully overdone, delicious English accents, at least the kinds heard in the films of the '30s and '40s that wring full expression from Coward's words. The dialogue sounds the way Coward, the kind of gentleman who would languidly use expressions such as "my dear boy" when talking to a middle-aged man, would have meant them to sound.
Even though the production is marvelous to look at, with a solid and meticulously detailed set by Maggie Modig and colorful 1930s-era costumes from Judy Whelihan that add an extra dash of elegance and flair, there is a temptation to close one's eyes and just listen to the marvelous vowels rolling off the stage.
Reston newcomer Elizabeth Costello, in particular, as separated but still friendly wife Liz Essendine, makes the most of the language, sounding for all the world like a female version of the late English actor and ultimate gentleman George Sanders ("The Saint").
Each of her words is carefully cultivated and rotund, fully developed for dramatic excess before emanating in a velvety sound that is part purr, part growl.
Dialogue coach Vanessa Knight is surely due some of the credit, but director Adam Konowe must be applauded for instilling a uniform sense of his artistic vision in the cast of 10. They don't all do great accents, but the female performers, especially, share a sense of manic energy and overripe body language that makes this bedroom circus sparkle.
Konowe has every physical action onstage creating a reaction, and even the smallest stage directions are pumped for comedy.
For instance, the maid, played by Diane Wurzer, doesn't just answer the doorbell, she careens around a corner, clomping clownishly in thick boots. And she has a ridiculous Norwegian accent.
"Present Laughter" concludes this weekend, performed by the Reston Community Players at Reston Community Center, 2310 Colts Neck Rd., in Hunters Woods Plaza. Showtime is 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tickets are available at 703-476-1111 or at the center's box office.