Before Monty Python or The Full Monty, before Four Weddings and a Funeral or Mr. Bean, there was Noel Coward. His plays are the source from which all modern British comedy flows.
Everything audiences associate with British comedy -- the understated delivery, the penchant for social satire, the inordinate fondness for comedies of error -- can be traced back to Coward's farces.
Present Laughter is no different. Misconstrued intentions, infidelity and the constant struggle to maintain a sense of normalcy under difficult circumstances all mark the play as typical English fare.
For the Augusta Theatre Company, which presents the play Thursdays through Saturdays through March 25, that was part of the appeal.
"This is a show I know well," explained director James Worth. "I knew that I wanted to do a comedy, and I had wanted to do this play for some time. So I thought, why not? Let's do a good, old-fashioned English comedy."
The play is a peek into the mayhem created when matinee idol Garry Essendine finds himself in an innocent but easily misconstrued position with a young starlet. As friends, family and business associates file in and out of the play's penthouse setting, the somewhat-less-than-honorable Essendine finds himself scrambling to keep up appearances in the classic English sense.
"There's a kind of voyeurism that's popular right now with MTV and all these shows looking in at peoples' lives," said Julie Menger, who plays Joanna, a married woman pursuing Essendine's affections. "That's what this is like, it's like being a fly on the wall of this apartment."
Although the play was written and takes place in the late 1940s, Mr. Worth said that much of its appeal comes from its timelessness.
"This play I think translates well," he said. "I think it's the least dated of Coward's plays."
The play's comic situations could be translated to any time or location, but Mr. Worth and the company decided to perform the play as written -- including the requisite English accents.
"Some people are finding it easy and some are finding it hard, but that's part of being an actor. The cast is dealing with it and forging on," Mr. Worth said.
Mr. Worth, whose accent betrays his English roots, knows a thing or two about the patterns of British speech and has coached his cast.
"I've done several shows with a British accent, and every time you try and work on it and make it better," said Tony Cooper, who plays Essendine. "Of course, with James, it's harder to fake it."
The cast and director agree that the appeal of the play lies not only in the comic situations, but Coward's use of language as well.
"What's come out of this for me is actually an understanding of Coward's craft," Mr. Worth said. "Coward actually writes in a particular rhythm for each character. It's made me aware of how he wants each character played."
Coward's humor is derived from the text of the play and the actor's subtle delivery. This has meant extensive tweaking for some members of the cast.
"The humor here is much lower key," Ms. Menger explained. "Instead of deriving laughs from a broad delivery, the humor comes from the actual words."
What: Present Laughter, presented by the Augusta Theatre Company
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, March 10, March 16-17 and 23-24; 3 p.m. Saturdays, March 11, 18 and 25
Where: Jack B. Patrick Information Center Auditorium at Augusta Technical Institute, 3116 Deans Bridge Road
Admission: $15 adults, $10 for students and seniors, $7.50 for Saturday matinees
Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 .
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