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Noel Coward and Friends

In Noel Coward’s play about self-centered, histrionic and mostly attractive theater people, Garry Essendine stands out. That’s because Coward was re-creating himself in “Present Laughter,” the drawing room comedy he wrote in 1939, when the world was falling apart. This handsome, mannered and articulate actor is always on. “I’m watching myself go by,” he tells us. And we watch, too. For “Present Laughter” is high-flown, theater of the exaggerated, with women in 5-inch heels, oceans of brandy, plenty of satin nightwear, smart jibes from everybody, including Essendine’s valet, many, many costume changes, a flash of nudity and, trickiest of all for American actors, upper-class English accents. Nobody’s is all that good, but the actors stick to their melismatic vowels so we in the audience go along. The play opens with little Daphne (Gloria Antonios) swanning about an elegant London drawing room in Essendine’s satin pajamas, waiting for the famous actor to wake up (she appeared at his door the night before, saying she’d lost her latchkey, and Essendine, played expansively by Jonathan Jacobson, lets her in, and lets her have her way with him, presumably). Essendine is surrounded by people who want something of him: time, attention, better behavior, sex. And when he’s had enough of their demands he threatens Liz, his wife (they have not lived together for years, but just “never got ’round” to divorce), his business partners and his secretary, gloriously played by Janice Connor, with his preposterous plan to run off with a production of “Peer Gynt,” a five-act, 19th-century play in verse by Henrik Ibsen. As with all neatly constructed comedies, the multitude of complications — Roland (Chris Bolster), the young playwright with a crush on Essendine who wants this drawing room comedy figure to “take a shot at something deeper,” Daphne, of course, and a business partner’s wife, the “predatory” Joanna (LuAnn Leonard) who also loses her latchkey with the same result ­— collide in a splendid second act. Someone asks at this point if they are not engaged in French farce, which they seem to be, right up to the last giddy minute. The play is a pleasure, and the actors are entertaining, Jacobson as Essendine and Robyn Maitland as Liz in particular. And this is an interesting departure for TheatreWorks New Milford, with its history of wry and subversive holiday plays. Perhaps a play about cunning, beautiful theater people with English accents, slamming doors, employing telephone codes, telling small lies, resorting to blackmail and indulging in various improprieties with no mention at all of the holidays is the most subversive move of all. “Present Laughter” plays at TheatreWorks New Milford through Jan. 7. For tickets: 860-350-6863 or www.theatreworks.us.

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