‘Present Laughter’ charms on McHenry County College stage in Crystal Lake

Noel Coward’s wit shines bright in Black Box Theatre

McHenry County College’s Black Box Theatre’s production of “Present Laughter”  by Noel Coward - 2024

Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter” has been labeled the playwright’s most autobiographical comedy. Written in 1939 in just six days, “Present Laughter” wasn’t produced until 1942 because of World War II; while in rehearsal, all the London theaters closed. The title is drawn from a song in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” that urges people to seize the day (“present mirth hath present laughter”). Since 1942, the comedy has starred such notables as Coward himself, Peter O’Toole, Albert Finney, Ian McKellen, Frank Langella and Kevin Kline in the lead role.

McHenry County College’s Black Box Theatre production of “Present Laughter” is a lengthy, three-act play with two intermissions (the first act alone runs a little over an hour), but director Angie Kells has cast well and maintains Coward’s sparkle and wit. She keeps the old flames and stalkers engagingly paced and physical.

Kells’ direction is complemented by the costume design of Carol Foreman – era-appropriate and Coward true from the women’s evening wear to Garry’s dressing gowns. Eric Luchen’s set design is an elegant version of a 1930s studio, with Alison Thomas Hage’s lavish props and set dressing and Holly Adkins’ scenic painting. Deb Holmen’s lighting is effective and admirable for the time passage shown, especially the reflective sun patterns through the front doorway. Kells is also fortunate to have the talents of dialect coach Marisa Snook.

Based on Coward’s legendary wit and larger-than-life personality, “Present Laughter” unfolds the tale of Garry Essendine, star of the London theater scene. He is adored by legions of fans; he is charming, successful, self-obsessed and charismatic. But it’s two weeks before he is to embark on a theatrical repertory tour of Africa. Garry is dealing with complications (get your scorecard ready): an infatuated young woman, an unhinged young playwright, his seductive friend’s wife, his own ex-wife, his secretary, manager, producer and, oh yes, the midlife crisis of his 40th birthday.

The cast of 10 is delightful. Addie Keller begins the show with giggles and poses, and is the perfect, wide-eyed, blissful, obsessive fan and hopeful actress Daphne. (Garry says: “She’s a darling. I’m mad about her. What did you say her name was?”) Keller also provides much of the comic relief in addition to the wonderful Skye Schoen as Roland Maule, the unhinged young playwright who is obsessed with Garry and just won’t go away. The talented Schoen is adorable and annoying at the same time.

After a 20-year hiatus and making her debut at The Black Box Theatre, Emily Kunash is Liz, Garry’s ex-wife. Kunash has the gift of understanding her character well; her Liz is chic, classy, and still adores Garry. She counsels him as a quiet governess would: “Your scampering about is undignified.” Kunash is a veritable talent that I hope we see more of.

Bobby Roberts is a stalwart Monica, Garry’s secretary of 17 years, who has unproclaimed feelings for him. She is an efficient and crisp actress, playing Monica with superbly down-to-earth authority.

Gianah Tomczak’s Joanna is to quote Garry: “100% female, a permanent pleasure to the eye.” Tomczak plays Joanna as a siren, intelligently and dangerously. She’s had an affair with Morris, is married to Hugo, and is in love with Garry.

The supporting cast is composed of impressive actors. Stephen Pickering as Morris, Garry’s manager, is tall, elegant, and possesses a mustached maturity and mournful expression. You do wish he was onstage more. Karen Peterson portrays both the Scandinavian spiritualist/housekeeper and Lady Saltburn. Her ability to go from cigarette-snatching frumpy to high class is very entertaining. Brian Fleming is Fred the valet; he is nimble on foot as a dancer, and can do a great cockney accent, but he is another actor you wish had more lines and time onstage. Paul Lockwood is Hugo, the philandering financier of Garry’s plays, projecting the right amount of business acumen and despair over Joanna. I wish Coward had developed Hugo more, too.

McHenry County College’s Black Box Theatre’s production of “Present Laughter”  by Noel Coward - 2024

But the show truly belongs to Joel Bennett as Garry Essendine. Bennett is an Olympian actor; he is rarely offstage, and the amount of dialogue he flawlessly delivers is incredible. He carries the show on his shoulders. Devastatingly charming and funny, he is expressive physically as well as vocally. Bennett can be suave and pompous and childish, whether jumping the couch or checking his appearance in the mirror. He gives Coward’s language all the full zest needed for the perfect cad. Quite simply, Bennett is a masterpiece in human form.

Artistic director and producer of MCC’s Black Box Theatre, Jay Geller, said that when he hired Kells, he asked her what comedy she would like to direct. “Present Laughter” was on the list, and since The Black Box had not done a British comedy or a Noel Coward play, Geller chose “Present Laughter.” It was a smashing choice!

• Regina Belt-Daniels most recently directed “Love Letters” for Steel Beam Theatre, and has directed over 40 shows for RCLPC, TownSquare Players, Woodstock Musical Theatre Company, Independent Players, Elgin Theatre Company, The Black Box Theatre and Raue Center For The Arts. When not onstage or backstage, she can be found writing theater reviews for Shaw Local News Network, and traveling with her husband.

IF YOU GO

• WHAT: “Present Laughter”

• WHERE: McHenry County College, The Black Box Theatre, Building E, 8900 Route 14, Crystal Lake

• WHEN: 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, March 15, 16, 22, 23; 2 p.m. Sundays, March 17 and 24

• COST: $15; $10 for students, MCC employees and alumni, seniors and veterans

• INFORMATION: To reserve seats, call 815-455-8746 or email jgeller@mchenry.edu