Theater Review: PRESENT LAUGHTER (Cygnet Theatre in San Diego)

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by Milo Shapiro on April 16, 2023

in Theater-Regional,Theater-San Diego


If you’re looking to expose yourself to the plays of Noël Coward, this is where to start. Not only did he write Present Laughter (in six days!) to amuse himself AND create the main character based on himself, but he even chose to play Garry in the original London production in 1942. This farce is by no means a biography, especially with Garry being a womanizer and Coward having been reservedly gay, but there’s no debating whose persona is on display. In fact, there have been productions where the seductive friend’s wife “Joanna has been replaced by “Joe,” portraying the plot in a manner closer to how Coward might have liked, if he’d lived long enough for such a staging to be acceptable.

Amanda Sitton, Sean Murray

At Cygnet Theatre, Garry — played by Artistic Director Sean Murray — is a stage actor with a huge fan base. As such, even in the 1940s, female admirers quickly become bed-mates for Garry, who wants nothing more from them afterward, partly because emotional connection is not his strong point and partly because, technically at least, he’s still married to Liz (Shana Ride). While Liz has moved on from the marriage — knowing fully well the philanderer that Garry is — she has settled into being a damage-control agent for this man she genuinely cares for.

Sean Murray, Shana Wride 

Garry never really stops acting; hardly a sentence he utters isn’t done for dramatic effect, either to emphasize how he suffers, or to get himself out of trouble. In an attempt to break up with one admirer, he goes so far as to use a scene from a play he was in because he knows how to act sincere but not be sincere.

Sean Murray

The bottom line on the story is that there really isn’t much of one; not a lot actually happens. The delight here is the characters, particularly Garry’s, but his secretary Monica’s (Melissa Fernandez) blend of maternalism and sarcastic wit; his valet Fred’s (Trevor Cruse) twinkle-in-the-eye camaraderie and collaboration with Garry; brazen Joanna’s (Amanda Sitton) bold do-we-like-her-or-don’t-we aura; and Liz’s calm and command.

Lindsey Young, Steven Lone, David Humphrey, Annie Hinton, Sean Murray

Under the brisk direction of Rosina Reynolds, Mr. Murray clearly delights in allowing a bit of his clown to shine, throwing himself on furniture and milking a simple staircase climb for effect. In any other play, critics would throw the book at him for overacting, but it’s exactly what’s needed to bring Garry’s exaggerated ways to life.

Lindsey Young, Sean Murray

Because of the emphasis on character definition and building and the sheer number of characters (eleven), Act I yields chuckles but, without a dramatic arc, may have some viewers a little antsy by intermission. The payoff comes in Act II, during which the laughs grow as Garry’s tangled web gets stickier than he can handle, and those in his life pay the price for it. Though no one will suffer more robustly, of course, than Garry.

Present Laughter could easily be done poorly. Because the joy is primarily in the character work, the actors and the pacing have to be excellent. Mr. Murray and the rest of the cast treat us to a sweet and humorous trip back in time and across the Pond through the fine work of a treasured playwright.

photos by Karli Cadel Photography

Present Laughter
Cygnet Theatre Company
Old Town Theater, 4040 Twiggs St.
Wed & Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on April 29, 2023
for tickets, call 619-337-1525 or visit Cygnet

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