San Pedro’s Little Fish Theatre closes its 2012 season with a sparklingly performed revival of Noël Coward’s hilariously farcical Present Laughter. If only poor sightlines didn’t leave many audience members craning for a view of the actors.

 Noah Wagner stars as full-of-himself stage luminary Garry Essendine, a role originated in London by Coward himself, on Broadway by Clifton Webb, and most recently on the Great White Way by Victor Garber—and a humdinger of a role it is, one which Wagner plays to the hilt … and then some.

Over the course of Present Laughter’s three act’s (divided here quite niftily into two, though a scene-by-scene description in the program would be helpful), Garry finds himself dealing with a nubile young fan, a glamorous estranged wife, an enamored stage-door Johnny, and his producer’s voluptuous younger wife (who’s been carrying on an affair with Garry’s manager and appears ever-so ready to do the same with her hubby’s chief client). Garry’s entourage includes a chain-smoking housekeeper, an ever-so-efficient valet, and a “cluck-cluck” disapproving secretary. Add to that a high society matron who turns out to be the mother of one of the above and you’ve got a recipe for a terrific French farce (were it set in Paris instead of London circa 1940).

Having seen my fill of Private Lives and Blithe Spirits over the past several years, Present Laughter (the first word of the title is an adjective, by the way) turns out to be a delightful surprise, and quite possibly even funnier than those better known, more frequently revived Coward classics.

 In addition to a sensational Wagner, positively luxuuuriating in this role-of-a-lifetime, Present Laughter features the divine Amanda Karr as Garry’s almost-ex Liz and the beguiling Kimberly Patterson as his producer’s wife Joanna, three masterful performances that sparkle with Cowardian wit and razor-sharp comic timing.

Recent Chicago-to-L.A. transplant Andrew Nowak makes a memorable West Coast debut as aspiring playwright Roland Maule, giving a deliciously daffy performance that leaves little doubt which room of Garry’s house Roland would prefer to maul(e) his idol in (though I wish Wagner had been directed to react intrigued rather than aghast at Roland’s attentions—this being after all Noël Coward we’re talking about).

Tracey Wiltse is a hoot as housekeeper Miss Erikson, written Swedish, played Russian, and performed with an unlit cigarette that never leaves Wiltse’s lips and a hilariously tortoise-paced shuffle regardless of the urgency of the matter at hand. (Wiltse later returns in amusingly hoity-toity mode as Lady Saltburn.) The terrific Shirley Hatton is a dryly censorious Monica (Garry’s long-suffering secretary), Present Laughter director James Rice makes for a nicely harrumphy Hugo (Joanna’s cuckolded spouse), and Greg Wickes scores as both Garry’s cockney butler Fred and Garry’s manager/Joanna’s paramour Morris. A bubbly Genevieve Taricco completes the cast as Daphne, the first of two characters to forget her latchkey and end up spending the night in Garry’s pajamas.

 Director Rice keeps the pace snappy and the characters almost constantly in motion, the better to hold audience attention and keep laughter at a maximum.

Unfortunately a good chunk of the above is sabotaged at a sold-out performance by the heads and shoulders of whoever happens to be sitting in front of you, meaning that depending on where you’re seated, you can expect at times only to see actors from the waist or even shoulders up, that is when whatever happens at sofa or floor level isn’t completely blocked from view. A shame, because with clear sightlines (like those allowed by steeper-raked seating at  Santa Monica’s similarly configured Ruskin Group Theater), this latest Little Fish production would merit an unreserved rave.

Scenic designer Christopher Beyries’ elegantly detailed set (Teresa Stirewalt is prop mistress) and Adriana Lambarri’s picture-perfect period costumes are expertly lit by lighting designer Julie A. Sanchez, with Holly Baker-Kreiswirth once again contributing a topnotch sound design mixing period tunes and just-right effects. BrandyLee Hatcher is stage manager.

Not having attended a sold-out Saturday performance at Little Fish before last night, I should point out that this is the first time sightlines have proven problematic, and that had the theater been only half-full or had a 7:45 arrival not proven too late to find any but the last remaining seats, I could have scouted out seating that would have allowed me and my guest an unblocked view of the stage. Regardless, on this particular evening, considerable enjoyment ended up lost.

Fortunately, with Noël Coward at his most frothily scintillating and a cast of South Bay actors giving their Hollywood and Broadway counterparts a run for their money, Present Laughter presents audiences with an abundance of laughs (even if we may not always be able to see what we’re laughing at).

Little Fish Theatre, 777 Centre St. San Pedro.

–Steven Stanley
November 10, 2012
Photo: Holly Baker-Kreiswirth

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