PRESENT LAUGHTER, Bailiwick Repertory. Noel Coward's 1943 comedy has most of the usual ingredients of a Coward play: bitchy upper-class characters; snappy, brittle dialogue; a posh setting (in this case a popular actor's well-appointed London flat). The only thing missing is the laughter.
Oh, there are funny bits in this complicated farce about an egotistical leading man who has a nasty habit of picking up loose women when he's drunk (which he is every night). But Present Laughter lacks the nonstop comic brilliance of Coward's best plays: Private Lives, Blithe Spirit, Hay Fever. Set in 1938, England's last full year of peace, and written to take the country's mind off the war, this play strains mightily for wit and lightheartedness--and falls flat.
Director James Pelton and his pretty good non-Equity cast also strain mightily to squeeze laughs from this old warhorse. And they re-create quite nicely the sophisticated air of a Coward play, right down to the art deco decor (designed by Tom Burch). But having done that, the performers seem vaguely disturbed that all their posh posturing yields so few laughs. Still, Don Bender and Lori Myers are winning as the couple from hell, the self-indulgent matinee idol and his still emotionally entangled estranged wife. Watching them spar made me wish they were in a Coward play worthy of their talents.