There's something about Garry.
It has to do with his penchant for flattery, his practiced nonchalance, a persistent streak of mischievousness carried over from adolescence. Garry's every interaction is driven by an irrepressible desire to entertain, helped along by his Pavlovian habit of pouring drinks for his guests while tossing off bone-dry bons mots.
The matinee idol Garry Essendine, long-suffering star of his own long-running life, is possibly the most charming character in 20th century theater. He also happens to be the star of Noel Coward's autobiographical play "Present Laughter," which opened Thursday night in the Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., ushering in the Shaw Festival's 52nd season in typically grand fashion.
In this production, directed by David Schurmann, Garry (which is to say, Noel Coward) comes to shimmering life in the capable hands and grandiose gesticulations of Steven Sutcliffe. His portrayal is an affected and exquisitely balanced master study in comedy and pathos. I have very little sense of what the self-obsessed genius who wrote this play was like in person, but I would like to think he was something like the man who so thoroughly commanded the attention of the Festival Theatre audience Thursday.
Garry's success as a matinee idol is an outgrowth of all of that charm, as is the small coterie of friends, ex-lovers and business partners who look after his affairs. But as Coward was out to prove in "Present Laughter," a life-long performance can be wearying, and the constant and dutiful application of a charm as vast as his can chip away at a man's soul.
The action plays out in Garry's nicely appointed London studio, where we meet the determined young Daphne (the overwrought Julia Course), the latest in a string of one-night stands. As his sardonic secretary (Mary Haney) puts it, Garry is "an eminent man advancing, with every sign of reluctance, into middle age" who draws no distinction between life on the stage and off. Daphne is one of those signs of reluctance, as is the seductive Joanna (Moya O'Connell), who threatens to throw off the delicate equilibrium of Garry's life and circle of friends as he and his acting company prepare for a tour of Africa.
In the play's zany course of affairs, we meet Garry's loyal friend and wife-in-name-only Liz (the forthright and lovely Claire Jullien), his neurotic business partners Morris (Gray Powell) and Hugo (Patrick McManus), two hilarious helping hands (James Pendarves and Corrine Koslo), and the unhinged aspiring playwright Roland Maule (Jonathan Tan), who is Garry's polar opposite in manner and outlook.
The world revolves around Sutcliffe, who plays Garry with an affected brand of exasperation – a certain positioning of the mouth and furrowing of the brow – that can be withering to newcomers but seems transparent as air to members of his inner circle. In addition to its comic grace, Sutcliffe's performance is all the more delightful for its refusal to gloss over Coward's homosexuality. He plays the role with just the right amount of queeny touches, lending his character a deeper humanity and a sad sense that his performance may extend even to the bedroom.
He acts out the piece against William Schmuck's excellent set, in which a half-painted mural serves as a backdrop to Garry's half-painted life.
After a torrent of sophisticated humor that is nothing short of stunning, this play shows us that rare creatures like Garry are not, as he puts it, "just puppets, creatures of tinsel and sawdust."
That declaration, late in the play, is one of the few moments in which his put-on self-confidence breaks down. It elevates "Present Laughter" beyond a comic trifle and into the stuff of great drama. It shows us that a great performer's most treasured asset – his charm – can also be his darkest demon.
> THEATER REVIEW
Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)
Drama presented through Oct. 28 by the Shaw Festival in the Festival Theatre, 10 Queens Parade, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. For more information, call 800-511-7429, www.shawfest.com.