Perhaps watching Present Laughter wasn’t an experience of rebirth, but I certainly felt enlivened after seeing it. Everyone involved should be proud of a wonderful performance and of the fact that, for a couple hours during mid-terms, they made people laugh. Present Laughter fulfilled my expectations of a classic British “Door Comedy” and served as a pleasant reprieve from the more avant garde theater that has been produced at Williams this year.
The action of the play revolves around the chance entrances and exits of characters through the five doors that lead into the living room of Gary Essendine, a very theatrical middle-aged actor. Each entrance leads to further complications in Gary’s sex life, culminating in his sleeping with his friend’s wife. Despite his supposed resolve to live a more simple and chaste life, his situation by the end has grown so complicated that he decides to move in with his not-so-ex-wife in order to escape from his problems.
The production was very well directed and tightly put together. The unfolding of the plot relied heavily on action, especially on entrances and exits. The directors coordinated the complicated action very well, creating a production that appeared very well-planned and solidly constructed but retained the sense of spontaneity that was necessary for the play to be successful.
Present Laughter, as a play, is fairly predictable. For example, it was no surprise that, when Joanna, played by Catherine Nicholson ’00, “forgot her latchkey,” she and Gary would end up sleeping together. However, the play was directed so that the actors themselves seemed to make fun of this very predictability. The humorous attitude that the characters seemed to take to their own situations elevated a relatively shallow plot to a higher level of humor and believability.
The cast gave their all to keep the play compelling and humorous. To make a play like Present Laughter – dependent on split second cues and high tension – come to life takes an immense amount of concentration and energy; the actors more than succeeded in bringing these qualities to their performances. Sometimes, it seemed, they were too eager and quick to jump on their cues. The play moved so quickly at times that some of the more complex emotions that could have been milked for what they were worth disappeared under the humor. However, the cast admirably kept the play moving, a difficult task in such a complicated production. To keep an audience laughing for over two hours is no small feat, and I know that I was laughing all the way through.
Unfortunately for the female actresses, however, their roles seemed far less intricate and developed than those of the male actors. The play itself is not extremely deep or emotionally involved, but the male roles at least seemed to have more character and spunk than those of the females. I think the fault for this lack of depth lies not in the actresses or the directors, but in the play itself. The women of the play came across as very similar and kind of shallow, either as objects of sexual desire or as organizing and calming forces for the men.
The humor and complexity of the play came either from the men and their interactions with the women, which is perhaps symptomatic of the fact that the play was written by a male in the 1940s. The actresses themselves exhibited great talent, though the roles themselves were less than marvelous. The actors and directors did as well as one could with what they were given.
Present Laughter earns its merit, though, for its capacity to make people laugh. If one approaches the play with this in mind, I think that the performance put on by Cap and Bells was wonderful and met all possible expectations. The initial impulse of Williams students, I think, is to overanalyze works of art – to assume that for something to be a work of art, it must be “deep” and have layers and layers of complex meanings. If one approaches Present Laughter from this viewpoint, then one is bound to be disappointed.
However, if one takes it for what it is, a British comedy meant to make people laugh, then the play more than achieved its goal. The Adams Memorial Theater Mainstage has rarely been filled with as much laughter as it was last weekend.