Near the end of the first act of “Present Laughter,” a satin-robed middle-aged man asks his secretary and dear friend, “Have you seen me overact?” She glares at him and responds, “Frequently.” And thus, Theatre Rhinoceros’ production of Noël Coward’s comedy gets its biggest laugh of the show.
At this point, the audience has spent nearly an hour at the Eureka Theater watching director and lead actor John Fisher pleading for laughs with his acting — even as a character who overacts.
This interaction is the result of one of the egocentric actor Garry Essendine’s (Fisher) many tantrums during “Present Laughter,” which focuses on the man’s money-drenched, sex-filled mid-life crisis and the chaos that ensues as a result of his hedonism. The aging actor has a secretary, a housekeeper, a valet, a (kind of) ex-wife, a manager, a producer, a scholarly admirer and, of course, the women with whom he spends his evenings.
Like any great comedy ensemble piece, the characters must temper the script’s ridiculousness in pursuit of collaborative comedic timing, and Noël Coward provides all of the tools to do so. The cast of characters has the potential to be a laugh riot, and eventually is. But John Fisher taints the Theatre Rhino ensemble — a long-running San Francisco group specializing in queer theater — with a lead performance that takes the “overacting” line too close to heart.
Fisher takes a character with potential for emotional richness and diminishes him into a man with the emotional capacity of a 10-year-old who likes to be coddled and patted on the chest by every woman with whom he comes in contact.
When Garry’s valet Fred (Ryan Engstrom) performs a charming tap dance for his boss, Garry obnoxiously claps his hands and giggles like a toddler watching a juggler at a circus. He’s a physical clown with an English accent. Think Cary Grant with the physicality of Austin Powers. While Fisher’s fearlessness in his interpretation is commendable, playing up the comedy in the piece in such a way weakens it.
It’s much more interesting to see comic material taken seriously; outlandish situations acted out with complete investment and dedication is the comedic gold standard. And it actually is possible for laughing stock to be riddled with characters possessing genuine emotional depth. One could argue that Noël Coward’s Garry Essendine in fact possesses none, but genuine moments between him and his secretary Monica (Kathryn Wood) suggest otherwise. Such moments are missed opportunities to explore the humanity buried beneath the farcical mayhem.
Others in the ensemble piece rise above their leading man, peeling back the layers of “Present Laughter” and revealing its proper comedic timing. In a scene-stealing role as Fred, Ryan Engstrom charms the pre-show audience with piano playing, singing and an enchanting Cockney “‘ello.” (If at first encounter, you also think the actor should play the emcee in “Cabaret,” check the play program — he has.)
Then there’s Roland (Marvin Peterle Rocha), who zaps the play’s first half with much-needed energy and authenticity. This is what all the fuss with the women at the beginning of the play was leading up to: a wildly entertaining and “most peculiar young man.” He’s a writer who becomes utterly infatuated with Garry. Rocha’s gaze follows Fisher across the stage in obsessive wonder, nerves and boyish pout characterizing his fascination, plus an inreplicable, sexually-frustrated yelping sound that is equal parts character-specific and hilarious.
Rocha and Fisher’s interactions teem with chemistry, featuring the rare moments in which Fisher actively takes the comedy as seriously as another player does. If, as a young actor, Rocha can bring out the best in his own director, it’s safe to say that he promises to bring much more great work to the stage.
No more is the ensemble’s talent revealed in full than through the top of the second act, when every actor in the 10-person cast is onstage, laying before Garry the tangled web of his self-absorbed lifestyle. It’s a manic concoction of characters running in and out of doors, revealing open secrets and giving Garry much-deserved grief. We see a man’s horrid choices tumble on top of him and as an audience, we literally get to laugh in his face for it — courtesy of Noël Coward.
In short, it’s a scene of delightful, frenetic chaos.
It’s a testament to an actor’s moral character if playing self-absorbed and egotistical doesn’t come easily. Actor-director John Fisher couldn’t find a balance as Garry Essendine. Luckily, he is in great company onstage, even amid chaos.
“Present Laughter” is playing at Theatre Rhinoceros through July 2.