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What a Coward: Aaron Lamb shines in 'Present Laughter.'

King of Comedy

Aaron Lamb's performance anchors SRT's top-notch 'Present Laughter'

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Summer's arrival in the North Bay is annually signaled by three identifiable occurrences: morning fog in Petaluma; a sharp increase of winetasting tourist traffic on the back roads of Sonoma and Napa counties; and the start of a new season of theater by SRJC's Summer Repertory Theatre program. The first of five to open was Bye Bye Birdie, onstage at Burbank Auditorium. The second, which opened last Friday at the recently refurbished Santa Rosa High School auditorium, is Noël Coward's vigorous farce Present Laughter.

I can't say much about Birdie, as I haven't seen it, and won't, because that musical, while always quite popular and packed with pleasant tunes, simply gives me hives. I can't explain it and therapy hasn't cured it. I just don't like it.

I am, however, quite happy to have seen Present Laughter. If this is a sign of the quality of this year's shows, then 2004 is likely to be one of SRT's best seasons. Present Laughter is a deliciously choreographed delight. Not bad for a show about a middle-aged rich guy with promiscuity issues.

And that would be Garry Essendine, played extraordinarily well here by SRT veteran Aaron Lamb. Essendine is London's most popular stage actor, an outrageously vain, pampered, middle-aged philanderer who tries to blunt his mounting panic at aging by sleeping with a parade of star-struck young women. Not that he allows himself to be truly touched by any of them.

"I remember her now. I'm mad about her," he professes, when reminded of a recent conquest. After a beat he adds, "What was her name?" He's the kind of man who can't leave the room, even for two seconds, without checking himself in the mirror before he goes (a gag that could grow old, but as played by Lamb, just gets funnier every time it happens).

Essendine is so addicted to larger-than-life theatrics that he can't ever manage to stop the performance, using comically large and stagy gestures and making overly dramatic pronouncements ("There's something sad about happiness, isn't there?") even when at home among his affectionate collective of faithful colleagues and business partners. These include his manager and his producer, Hugo Lyppiatt and Morris Dixon (Dan Morrison and C. J. Dion); his acerbic assistant Monica (nicely played by Sarah Ragan); and his astonishingly patient wife, Liz (the excellent Marian Partee), who moved out long ago but stays involved as his unofficial protector and designated CEO of the profitable institution that is Essendine's career.

Throughout the play, Essendine is an emotional wreck, preparing for a career-capping tour of the theaters of Africa, a venture that terrifies him almost as much as the thought of growing old and losing his famous charm. At the same time, he has a number of problems to juggle. Daphne Stillington (Shelby Kocee), the perky fan he recently allowed to spend the night, doesn't appear to want to go away, and neither does Roland Maule (Matt Hammons), an outrageously unstable young playwright who's become unhealthily fixated on Essendine. Then there's Joanna (Hattie Davis), Hugo's social-climbing wife, who may be having an affair with Morris, but almost certainly hopes to trade up to Essendine, who really just wants to go to bed with a good book and an apple.

The star of any Noël Coward play is, of course, the language--difficult, but delightful when properly performed. Coward has a way of putting the oddest turns of phrase into his characters' mouths in ways that make them sound witty and brilliant, as when Liz soothes a flustered visitor, saying, "You poor thing, you must be absolutely congealed." Or when a collapsing Essendine is told that his overly-sensitive nature might be due to his profession. "I suspect it's because you're an actor," Liz tells him. "They're always a bit papier-mâché."

It takes a top-notch cast to bring believable life to dialogue like that, and an even better one to make it sing. From Lamb's elastic Essendine to Miss Erikson (Deanna Cordano), his bizarre Scandinavian housekeeper, this capable cast proves there's nothing the least bit papier-mâché about it.


'Present Laughter' plays at the Santa Rosa High School theater through Aug. 5. June 30, July 1, 9, 15, 20, 28 and Aug. 5 at 8pm; July 18 at 2pm and 7:30pm. Tickets and full schedule are available at the box office (707.527.4343) or online at www.santarosa.edu/srt/tix.html.

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From the June 30-July 6, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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