In his prolific playwriting career, Noël Coward produced nearly 40 plays and multiple revues, musicals, and songs. Using classic drawing-room comedy plots, Coward’s work, which ended with his death in 1973, transcends generations and is still popular today. Ireland’s Gate Theatre delivers one of his most loved productions, Present Laughter, to the Dock Street for a 16-night Spoleto run.
First thing to keep in mind: Present Laughter is supposedly Coward’s most autobiographical work. It’s about a few days in the life of self-obsessed actor Garry Essendine, played by Stephen Brennan. He plays the role like it was written for him, bringing to life this hilarious farce. At least that’s according to his co-star Paris Jefferson, who plays Brennan’s onstage wife Liz Essendine. City Paper caught up with Jefferson moments after she’d exited a pool in London.
“I completely forgot about your call because I went for a swim. I was just dying to be wet!” The first words out of Jefferson’s mouth and we can already tell she’s hilarious.
Jefferson was born in London but grew up in Australia and got into theater through dance. She attended a private Catholic school and by age 8 was convinced that she wanted to be a nun. Of course, this charmed the habits off the sisters who ran the school, until one day Jefferson came to Sister Gidiana with some bad news. “I said, ‘Sister, I don’t want to be a nun,’ and she asked, ‘What would you like to do now?'” says Jefferson. “I think she thought I was going to be a nurse. I said I wanted to be a movie star.” Thus ended Jefferson’s year as teacher’s pet and so began a very successful career on the stage and screen. After graduating, she decided to ditch Australia, where opportunities for young actors were limited to soaps, and returned to her birthplace of London, where she found what she calls “heaps of work,” including a latter-day stint in cult favorite Xena: Warrior Princess.
“Now, there isn’t a lot of work,” she says. “Reality television has absolutely eaten into the industry in a huge way.” So much so that Jefferson’s agent recently told her the BBC is now making 20 percent of the dramas it made 12 years ago. Clearly the recession is an equal opportunity un-employer, another reason Jefferson is so thrilled to be involved with the Gate Theatre company.
Spoleto audiences will remember her from her 2007 performance as the star of Constant Wife, in which she played Constance, a clever woman who outwits her cheating husband. In Present Laughter, she’s dealing with a cheating husband again as Liz, only this time she ends up back with the promiscuous George after a hysterical comedy of errors. Jefferson says Alan Stanford, who also directed Constant Wife, brings his gift for humor to the forefront of Present Laughter. “He makes you play it for real. That’s when it becomes funny.”
In Present Laughter, the lovingly egotistical Garry embarks on a tour and must contend with women who want to seduce him, an irritating playwright, and his growing fear of turning 40. Coward wrote the play in 1939, but it wasn’t staged until ’42. He presented the show during a wartime tour of Britain and starred in the leading role. A hit from the beginning, one reviewer declared, “This will be remembered as the best comedy of its kind and generation.” The new production promises to feel relevant to modern audiences.
As for Jefferson, she’s thrilled to return to Charleston with this play. “I was a bit nervous about the volcano,” she says, fearing the cast wouldn’t be able to make the leap over the pond. But with the skies now cleared, travel issues shouldn’t be a problem for the Dublin-based company. Present Laughter will be present, which is a good thing for all Spoletians because, as Jefferson says, there’s a perfectly simple reason to attend. “In this day and age, in times this tough, people need a really, really good time and a good laugh.” That’s what Present Laughter promises.