Vintage Noel Coward play taps into current themes

Stephen Brennan as Garry Essendine and Fiona Bell as Monica Reed star in the Spoleto production of 'Present Laughter' at the Dock Street Theatre.

He may not have a prime-time series, a high-profile marriage or a million Twitter followers, but Garry Essendine is a star.

In case you haven't heard of him, Essendine is the central character in Noel Coward's "Present Laughter," a classic comedy of manners presented by Dublin's Gate Theatre at the refurbished Dock Street Theatre.

The 1942 comedy is vintage Coward, full of dazzling wit, silk smoking jackets and cigarette holders, supremely elegant in sartorial and linguistic style.

The artistic upper crust of World War II-era Britain might seem a world away from a 21st-century American audience, but the play resonates with audiences by tapping into a very modern obsession.

"It's about the cult of personality," said Alan Stanford, who directs the play. "It's about people who are worshipped simply because they are themselves. They are just people, but they are people who project a personality onto themselves, and more importantly the media and the public have projected that personality on them."

Garry Essendine, a fictional, aging heartthrob of the London stage in the 1930s, is at the center of his own universe. He is a temperamental artist who cannot be roused before the crack of noon and who can raise the most mundane interaction to the point of high drama.

Revolving around him are the fans, friends, lovers and colleagues -- those he loves and those who want to be loved by him -- that make his world go 'round.

"It is a very interesting play in terms of dealing with celebrity, dealing with dependency, dealing with that whole sense of people who are vulnerable to praise," said Michael Colgan, artistic director of the Gate Theatre.

The company, a longtime Spoleto favorite, is bringing the play to Charleston after a sold-old run in Dublin in 2009.

"He is adorable," Stanford said of Essendine. He is also completely self-centered. He is past it. He is no longer as sexually capable as he likes to imagine he is, and he's mean and he's rotten."

It's no accident that Essendine bears a striking resemblance to his creator.

"Noel Coward wrote the part of Garry Essendine for himself," said Stanford, "He was a megastar long before there were megastars."

"He mocks himself," said Stephen Brennan, who plays Essendine in the Gate's production, "and all the things that go with being a celebrity and with ego and with charm, and what charm can let you get away with. He ridicules himself and the preposterous way in which people adore celebrities. He created himself, and then created Garry Essendine."

Born in 1899, Coward was a prolific playwright and composer who spent his youth touring Britain as a child actor.

After achieving near-overnight success as a young playwright, Coward set about creating a public persona of such flamboyance that British theater critic Sheridan Morley called him "the Playboy of the West End world," a moniker that certainly could apply to Essendine.

" 'Present Laughter' is a very light comedy, and was written with the very sensible object of providing me with a bravura part," Coward said of the play upon its premiere on London's West End.

Brennan is the latest in a long line of distinguished actors to take up this star turn after Coward himself. Previous Essendines include such theater luminaries as Albert Finney, Peter O'Toole and Ian McKellan.

Joining Brennan on stage is, Stanford said, a cast of immaculately good actors -- Jade Yourell, Barbara Brennan, Dermot Magennis, Fiona Bell, Paris Jefferson, John Kavanagh, Michael James Ford, Peter Gaynor, Fiona O'Shaughnessy and Susan Fitzgerald.

To create the luxurious world required for the play, Colgan called upon much of the artistic team that brought the Gate's "The Constant Wife" to Spoleto in 2007.

Costumes are a critical part of the sumptuous lifestyle "When Johanna makes her entrance, there has to be a gasp … and the clothes have to make that happen," Colgan said. To that end he enlisted Peter O'Brien, a couture designer who has designed for luxury fashion houses Christian Dior, Givenchy, Rochas and Chloe.

While "Present Laughter" may sound full of the standard "woe is me" problems of an actor divorced from reality by many years of stardom, the heart of the piece is much more substantial.

"There's great truth in the play, the whole notion of people pulling on you every which way. It's like being a parent," said Colgan. "What's remarkable about this piece are the different levels and forms of love and need that run right through it."

The emotional struggles are precisely what make the play so unendingly funny. "The fact that you get to see people on the brink of making a mash of their lives and relationships is hilarious," said Brennan. "At any minute the whole thing could come falling down"

"The great secret of comedy is that there's nothing funny about it for the people it's happening to," added Stanford. "Farce is a tragedy happening to someone else."

Gemma Wilson is a Goldring Arts Journalism Program writer. She can be reached at gswilson@syr.edu.