San Diego County Arts Writer

Tired of going to plays that increasingly imitate television's adolescent programming? Ready to relax and chuckle along with a well-written comedy that has some meat on its bones? If so, the intimate Gaslamp Quarter Theatre has just the ticket.

With a reassuring confidence that comes from the author's reflective tone and director Will Simpson's mature staging, Noel Coward's slightly bitter comedy, "Present Laughter," embraces and charms us with its grown-up wit and middle-aged rhythms. Rather than go for some ga-ga gusto, Simpson has homed in on the de-accelerating life of the main character, a 40-ish heartthrob, as he slows to consider the onset of middle age.

The all-American cast at the newly air-conditioned Gaslamp (what heat relief) is a genuine joy to watch and hear. Navarre Perry in the role of Garry Essendine, a romantic-comedy star, creates a fascinating figure of a man who is always "on," always playing a part. In a marvelous performance, Perry never lets us see Essendine's real emotions--even at the very end he's naturally blase or cagey--as he parries the amorous assaults of every female in his life.

Leading the charge against Essendine is Mickey Mullaney in the role of a gorgeous predator who's married to one of Essendine's partners and having an affair with the other. Mullaney is as hard of heart as Perry is protective of his. Coralie Schatz offers an ultra-droll portrayal as a secretary who uses a rapier wit to defend against Essendine's unrequited love and almost two decades of watching an endless string of women spend the night in his spare room.

Actress Susan Herder should be decorated. She is becoming a master at understated comedy--this time as a plain, shy, gangly, slightly wacky Norwegian maid who's got a terrific crush on her employer. As her partner, Robert Harland summons an appropriate lower-class accent and swaggers with a winking joie de vivre as the Butler.

The other key roles include Patt Moore as a woman half Essendine's age who has picked him up. Moore brings all the inexperience and spontaneity to the woman that the older man lacks. Mark Robertson plays a bizarre young man who alternately berates Essendine for playing roles below his level and swoons in infatuation with the actor.

The real mover and shaper behind the scenes is Essendine's friendly but long-separated wife, who seems to have the inside track on him. Rebecca Nachison does a wonderful job as the all-knowing and mostly all-accepting Liz. We get the distinct feeling that this woman understands not only her husband but herself as well.

Gerry Krenzke, as one of Essendine's partners, is the only member of this cast who does not measure up to the others' fine acting. His lines are delivered in a flat, memorized manner. Chris Redo and Elle Sullivan--he the self-pitying partner, she piping like a well-modulated bird as Lady Saltburn--lend commendable support.

Robert Earl's drawing room set has a steady warmth of affluence and a slightly jarring note of color in the carpet that may refer to Essendine's pretentious, actorly ways.

The humor in this "Present Laughter" is low key but always rich with the wonder of humanity. And there's the blessed air conditioning.

In Lady Saltburn's words, this production "is splendid, splendid. I've been reborn."

"PRESENT LAUGHTER," Noel Coward's semi-rueful comedy. At the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre. Directed by Will Simpson. Scenic design by Robert Earl. Lighting design by Matthew Cubitto. Costumes by Joesph Dana. Stage Manager, Linda Muller. With Robert Harland, Susan Herder, Gerry Krenzke, Mickey Mullaney, Patt Moore, Rebecca Nachison, Navarre Perry, Chris Redo, Mark Robertson and Coralie Schatz. Performances continue Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. through Aug. 31, at 547 4th Ave.

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