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A Joyous Noël

[whitespace] Present Laughter Acting Again: Mark Capri and Rebecca Dines turn up the volume in 'Present Laughter.'

David Allen

The 'Laughter' is present and accounted for in TheatreWork's production of Coward classic

By Heather Zimmerman

'APPEARANCES can be deceiving" could be the mantra for Noël Coward's comedy Present Laughter, which takes a wry, and sometimes almost wistful, look at the life of a successful 1930s English stage actor, Garry Essendine (Mark Capri), and the price his fame has wrought. TheatreWorks offers a nimble production of this quintessential--and very personal--Coward comedy. Barely a scene goes by without one of Garry's confidantes accusing him of "acting again." Indeed, it seems that the seasoned actor can barely tell the difference himself between onstage and offstage anymore. Capri's Garry is hilarious as something of a male prima donna facing middle age--the vain, mercurial actor denying his advancing years with rampant womanizing and protected by a group of friends and employees who see to it that, in spite of himself, Garry does not receive any bad PR for his behavior.

In a sense, everything is a pretense for Garry, from his marriage to Liz (Rebecca Dines)--they're on almost eerily friendly terms, but they live in separate dwellings--to his dealings with the community to his close-knit circle of friends and business associates who are covering up among themselves a back-stabbing secret or two. Garry cannot escape his fame, a fate which he has largely brought on himself by exploiting his celebrity, in particular, to woo the ladies. His home office is the scene of a near-constant parade of admirers and hangers-on, the most persevering of whom are a smitten debutante, Daphne (Christine Williams), and a manic devotee, Roland Maule (Benjamin Privitt).

The first act lags a little in introducing the complicated web of relationships that will later ensnare everyone to great comic effect, but the strong ensemble cast helps to keep the slower spots interesting. Dines is particularly engaging as Garry's cheerfully wronged wife, who remains devoted, no matter how well she disguises it. And the supporting roles are as juicy as the principal ones--Erin-Kate Whitcomb, in particular, does an excellent turn as the Essendines' curt Nordic maid.

In a reflection of the play's theme of artifice, director Tom Lindblade has turned up the volume on the acting here, but that's a tactic well-suited to Coward's style; the inhabitants of his plays are not so much characters as caricatures, perhaps more specifically recognizable to 1930s audiences but no less entertaining today, so that even in its snide commentary on the hypocrisy of English society, Present Laughter remains as light as air.

Present Laughter plays Tuesday at 7:30pm, Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm, plus Saturday (Dec. 19 and Jan. 2) at 2pm, Sunday (Dec. 20) at 2 and 7pm, Sunday (Dec. 27) at 7pm and Sunday (Jan. 3) at 2pm, through Jan 3. at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $25-$33. (650/903-6000)

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From the December 17-23, 1998 issue of Metro.

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