Monday, December 9, 2019

Present Laughter and Pride and Prejudice: Present-Day Laughter

Andrew Scott and Indira Varma in Present Laughter. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

The relentless updating of classic material continues apace with the Old Vic revival of Noël Coward’s 1942 Present Laughter (recently broadcast in the NTLive series) and Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, currently being performed at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre. Present Laughter stars Andrew Scott as Garry Essendine, the narcissistic stage star Coward wrote as self-parody and starred in himself in the West End. The director, Matthew Warchus, has queered the material by making Garry explicitly bisexual and gender-switching the roles of his backer, Hugo, and his wife Joanna, still an outsider to Garry’s inner circle, who almost ruins everything by first carrying on an affair with Garry’s producer, Morris, and then seducing Garry himself. In this version, Hugo has become Helen (Suzie Toase) and Joanna is now Joe (Enzo Cilenti), so his dalliances with both Morris (Abdul Salis) and Garry are same-sex. Plus, as Garry reveals in the last act, Helen is sleeping with another woman.

Do these variations on Coward’s text matter? Superficially they don’t; it’s not as if there were no gays or bisexuals in the theatre world in the middle of the twentieth century. But the obvious point of the gender shift is to underline the fact that Coward was (famously) homosexual; it’s as if Warchus were telling us, “Oh, well, we all know what’s really going on here.” The in-the-know-ness of the enterprise is both facile and rather smug, like those revivals of The Glass Menagerie that make Tom obviously gay because everyone knows Tennessee Williams was. And since these men were masterful playwrights – even though Present Laughter is second-tier Coward, it’s vastly enjoyable – you can’t just move around the pieces of their plays without losing something in the process. The seduction scene at the end of Act II, Scene 1 feels clumsy when it’s played by two men because it was written to be played by a man and a woman; the rhythms are off. (It doesn’t help that Cilenti plays Joe as a silken Eurotrash roué.) Toase turns Helen into a butch caricature and Scott, entertaining as he often is, does so much camping and throws so many tantrums that sound distinctly twenty-first-century that you stop believing in the period altogether.

Warchus staged the funniest stage show I’ve ever seen on a stage, the 2008 Broadway revival of the knockabout farce Boeing-Boeing with Mark Rylance, Bradley Whitford, Mary McCormack, Christine Baranski, Kathryn Hahn and Gina Gershon. His direction of Present Laughter reminded me a lot of Boeing-Boeing – but what Coward wrote was a high comedy; he was the most brilliant exemplar of that genre after Oscar Wilde. The only member of the ensemble who plays it that way is Indira Varma, as Garry’s loyal ex-wife Liz, whose job it is, even now, to rescue him whenever his impulsiveness gets him in trouble, as it does repeatedly. (At the final curtain she saves him from two persistent young people who have fallen head over heels in love with him, an aspiring actress named Daphne Stillington played by Kitty Archer, and an aspiring playwright played by Luke Thallon.) Varma, a marvelous Ann Whitefield opposite Ralph Fiennes’s Jack Tanner in the National Theatre’s Man and Superman in 2015, propels her quips with the dazzling accuracy of a champion archer. And when she’s on her game, Sophie Thompson is awfully good as Essendine’s long-suffering secretary, Monica Reed. But sometimes she shrieks her lines, and in fact the production is entirely too damn loud and too damn chaotic.

Scott is a wonderful actor who’s capable of springing delightful surprises, and even though he’s not ideally cast as Garry – he doesn’t have the seasoning of a Langella or a Kevin Kline, who played the role two seasons ago on Broadway – he might have brought something unusual to it. But he can’t resist chewing the scenery. The best running gag in the play is that Garry is continually censuring the theatre folk around him for acting all the time, when he’s the worst offender. (Of course he is; he’s the only real actor in the crew.) Here the joke stops working sometime in mid-performance because Scott’s fervent overacting wrings all the juice out of it. This show furnishes an excellent example of what it means to gild the lily.

From left: Aneisa J. Hicks, Octavia Chavez-Richmond, Maria Elena Ramirez, Luis Moreno, Dawn Elizabeth Clements and Rami Margron in Pride and Prejudice at Long Wharf Theatre. (Photo:T. Charles Erickson)

The problem with cross-gender-casting in a period piece like Pride and Prejudice is that it tends to have the effect of sending up the material, and that’s what happens in Jess McLeod’s production when Brian Lee Huynh shows up as Miss Bingley and Luis Moreno takes on the part of Mary Bennet. (Both actors, like everyone in the cast except for the two stars, Aneisa J. Hicks as Elizabeth and Biko Eisen-Martin as Darcy, play more than one character.) Moreno, who’s very tall, looks so ridiculous in the role of the dour, puritanical teenager Mary that his performance comes across like a party stunt. Ditto for his reading of Bingley. But then the costume designer, Izumi Inaba, has clothed him in green short pants, a pink and crimson flower-print coat, knee-high black boots with pink buckles and a low-slung fur neckpiece; and McLeod has directed him to play Bingley – explicitly in his last scene – as a puppy dog. I can’t remember the last time I felt so terrible for an actor.

The production is awful, though among period shows that have been dragged, kicking and screaming, into some post-modern hell, it didn’t drive me as crazy as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival Oklahoma! or anything I’ve seen at Shakespeare’s Globe in London since Emma Rice was fired as artistic director. McLeod has some genuine skill at staging, and a couple of the actors come through: Octavia Chavez-Richmond as Jane, Huynh as Wickham and intermittently Hicks as Lizzy and – the exception that proves the rule – Rami Margron, cross-gender-cast as the sardonic, misanthropic Mr. Bennet. Hamill has retained Austen’s language for the most part, which most of the actors try earnestly to imbue with some elegance, and though Eisen-Martin seems straitjacketed as Darcy until the last scene, in his final clinch with Elizabeth the splendor of the love story breaks through all the dumb choices the show has made for the previous two hours. Their getting together has been written as a dance – a great idea, though it would have been nice if James Beaudry, the choreographer, had given it a flourish or two.

The casting cuts across many cultural boundaries; no one in the cast is white. There is, of course, no reason why Pride and Prejudice has to be cast with white actors just because Austen’s characters are Anglo-Saxon; the idea is that if great literature, like great drama, should resonate with everyone, then performing it should be open to everyone too. The problem is that since several of the actors seem to be completely wrong for their roles – especially Maria Elena Ramirez, who plays Mrs. Bennet as a tyrannical scold, and Dawn Elizabeth Clements, who is equally bad as Lydia Bennet and Lady Catherine de Bourgh – McLeod’s only consistent casting principle seems to have been to fill the stage with actors of color, and I find that choice demeaning rather than progressive. And as has often been the case with directors who begin in a spirit of anti-establishment defiance, McLeod sometimes stoops to lowest-common-denominator humor, like covering up Anne De Bourgh, Lady Catherine’s painfully withdrawn daughter, so she looks like a mummy in a dress and having her hiss and make animal sounds instead of speaking her lines clearly. Why would anyone think that this decision – or the hideous get-ups Luis Moreno is saddled with – was a good idea?

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment