“Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest….” Above the fireplace within stage actor Gerry Essendine’s late 1930s flat in London is an image of the actor himself, holding a skull, which is no doubt one his own favorite images of himself from his performance as Hamlet. Essendine’s past, present, and future are all explored in the First Presbyterian Theater’s run of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter. Surrounded by a vivacious and eccentric cast, this play delves into the life of a celebrity within the performing arts and reminds us of how the human heart desires companionship far more than it does material wealth and momentary satisfaction.
Gerry Essendine is played by the highly talented and expressive Todd Frymier. In capturing this self-centered, witty character, Frymier also achieves a convincing level of self-loathing. As the play progresses, we can see how a playboy lifestyle eventually has worn on him to the point of near madness and despair.
Making her Fort Wayne stage debut is Shelby Lewis as Daphne Stillington. Though her resume includes a number of lead Shakespearean roles, Lewis excels as a young woman who is clearly ready to shed her girlish naivete and is anxiously desiring to enter an adult relationship. In her vibrant performance, Lewis convincingly captures a young woman whose obsession with Essendine has clouded her take on reality. Susan Kahn plays Lady Saltburn, whose perfect moniker creates a tense and incredibly awkward moment in the life of a man whose private life and desires are unravelling far faster than he cares to admit.
Essendine’s employees include a secretary, a butler, and a cleaning woman, each of whom shape Essendine’s complex lifestyle and bitter flaws. As the secretary Monica Reed, FPT mainstay Nancy Kartholl delivers a consistent, no-nonsense performance as a woman whose own adulthood has been devoted to working for a man whose career is framed by becoming someone different. Kartholl’s character has, it seems, evolved as maternal, and the two of them exhibit how the balance some people have with one another can result in a lifelong friendship.
Gary Lanier plays Fred, Essendine’s personal butler. Lanier’s jovial presence counters many of the high-anxiety moments, especially those involving Essendine’s lovers. Lastly, Pam Karkosky delights as the chainsmoking Miss Erickson. Karkosky’s character is perhaps the truest ‘yin’ to Essendine’s ‘yang’ in that her completely unabashed views on the situations withing the apartment suggest that raw mentality most of us withold behind a filter.
On a secondary level, Suzan Moriarty and Jim Nelson further complete the turmoiled main character. Moriarty plays Liz Essendine, Gerry’s ex-wife, though they apparently never took the time to make that dissolution of marriage official. Though her scenes are sporadic, Moriarty shapes our picture of Gerry Essendine by inserting a limited amount of intimate details of the famed actor. Jim Nelson glowingly performs as eccentric Roland Maule. Maule’s desire to be near Essendine is similar to that of Daphne Stillington’s, though it is much more professionally than romantically driven. Throughout this comic drama, Nelson excels as a quirky bystander within a deeply complex romantic web.
The remaining cast members further intensify the story, especially the latter scenes. Andrew Gross and Jim Matusik play Gerry’s friends and colleagues, Henry and Morris, respectively. As with every other character, these two men shape a dimension of the main character whose life seems to be crashing down with each ring of the doorbell. Finally, Gloria Minnich performs as Joanna Lyppiatt. Minnich counters Frymier’s Essendine exquisitely through biting dialogue and a flirtatious, yet bedeviling presence. She accelerates the comic tension that had been building the entire time.
Director Christopher Murphy selected this play after catching a performance led by film and stage legend Kevin Kline. He notes that the plot is, perhaps surprisingly, not outdated. It seems apparent that exploring the life of an ego-centric performer is just as timely as ever, given modern society’s obsession with the privated lives of its idols within the arts. Murphy and Rae Surface coordinated the set design, and the Essendine-as-Hamlet portrait was no accident. Hamlet, upon finding the skull of the deceased clown, reflects on his boyhood innocence, which, for this play, is a direct correlation to how Essendine longs to grasp his own true life back after having spent years being other people on stage and only a small, witty version of himself with close company off stage. Through a balanced amount of tension and humor, Present Laughter reminds us to simply enjoy this short life we have together.