On our second day in Niagara-On-The-Lake, we attended a matinee performance of Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter” and an evening performance of George Bernard Shaw’s “The Millionairess”.
Although the playwrights were separated by two generations, the plays themselves were written almost contemporaneously.
“Present Laughter” was completed in 1939 (owing to war, its first production had to wait until 1942); “The Millionairess” was both completed and unveiled in 1936.
“Present Laughter” has always been one of Coward’s most popular plays; “The Millionairess” has always puzzled critics and audiences, and been among the least-produced of Shaw’s major works.
One may endure “Present Laughter” even in a bad performance because so many of the lines are witty (all of the characters speak as if they were Coward himself).
The Shaw Festival production was not bad, but it was in no way distinguished.
What was good about the production was the stage design—all productions of “Present Laughter” seem to revel in glorious Art Deco settings and costumes—and much of the character acting.
About half of the character acting was exceptionally fine; about half was not good at all. The half not good overplayed far beyond the bounds of acceptable exaggeration or underplayed to the point of disappearance. The general rule of thumb onstage: the more mature the actor, the better the playing.
At the center of the performance was a void. The actor playing the central role—that of a matinee idol—was not up to the role’s demands. He should never have been cast in such an important role.
In January 2010, Joshua and I had attended the recent Broadway production of “Present Laughter”. That production had starred Victor Garber. Garber, too, had been unsatisfactory—as well as twenty years too old for the part—but Garber had been a full-fledged success compared to the actor we saw stumble through the same part in Niagara-On-The-Lake.
The entire performance, every member of the audience must have wondered why all the subsidiary characters onstage were so fascinated by, and allowed their lives to revolve around, the central character. The actor at the center of the play was more vacuum cleaner salesman than matinee idol over whose every utterance a dozen persons were supposed to drool.
In the late 1970s, my parents saw a production of “Present Laughter” starring Peter O’Toole. My parents recall O’Toole as having been incandescent in a near-perfect staging of the play. They recall that production with great fondness after the passage of more than thirty years—and they insist that O’Toole was an unequivocally-great stage actor. (At the time, O’Toole was playing “Present Laughter” in repertory with “Uncle Vanya”, which my parents also saw and greatly admired.)
The Shaw Festival’s “The Millionairess” was my first encounter with the play.
“The Millionairess” provided us with what may have been our best experience at The Shaw Festival. We loved every minute of the play. We were riveted by the proceedings for all four acts.
Like most Shaw plays, there is no plot to “The Millionairess”. The play, in essence, is an extended discussion of capitalism, in one sitting.
At its center is the absurdly-named Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga, “the richest woman in England”. The play begins in the solicitor’s office of the heroine, where the heroine is amending her last will and testament prior to her planned suicide, a suicide designed to cause her as little discomfort as possible—but as much distress as possible to the persons in her life.
During the course of the play, the irresponsible and irrepressible—and irresistible—heroine engages in nonstop maddening behavior. She does everything from treating her husband and workers with utmost contempt to kicking a friend down a flight of stairs for making a remark critical of the heroine’s late father (the friend must spend the rest of the play on crutches).
Numerous challenges are thrown at the heroine, and she surmounts them all with ease—and with great flair. Perhaps most amusing is the heroine’s purchase of two failing businesses, a maneuver forced upon her in an effort to teach her some humility. In both cases, she begins making improvements to the businesses within thirty seconds of walking through the entryways—and, to the dismay of everyone, turns both enterprises into thriving commercial successes virtually overnight.
I have no idea what thesis Shaw intended when he sat down to write “The Millionairess”—Shaw had zero sophistication when it came to political or economic matters—but he clearly fell in love with his heroine, and in the process created his single greatest female role. Any message in the play gets lost as the audience breathlessly follows the adventures of the heroine as she proceeds from triumph to triumph, always turning dross into gold.
The actress portraying Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga was magnificent. Viewers in the theater were unable to take their eyes from her for the duration of the performance. She was magnetic while engaged in the most atrocious misdeeds, captivating while plotting the most brutal of business stratagems—no matter how many persons she had to step over.
The actress’s name was Nicole Underhay.
Underhay gave a genuine star performance. She was so superb, everyone else onstage had to raise the level of his or her performance in order to match Underhay—and did so. Underhay played off and played against the other cast members beautifully. None of the actors failed to register—including the cipher of an actor who had starred that very same afternoon in “Present Laughter”.
The designers had assisted Underhay in her compelling sweep through the role of the heroine. Each of the four acts had been designed in a single striking color scheme—red, blue, green, gold—with Underhay dressed in a sensational creation in a vivid shade of the prevailing color for each act. In that sense, Underhay was presented, jewel-like, in the manner of the glass of absinthe situated at the center of Edgar Degas’s masterpiece, “The Absinthe Drinker”.
I applaud The Shaw Festival production of “The Millionairess” as a genuine and rare achievement. There is, fundamentally, not much of a play at the center of “The Millionairess”—and, in my judgment, 99 of 100 productions surely would descend into camp. Yet The Shaw Festival gave the play a sparkling—yet straight—presentation.
To present “The Millionairess” in 2012 as a serious play—and to present it SUCCESSFULLY as a serious play (and not as some sort of ridiculous joke)—is a major accomplishment.
Opening-night reviews for this production of “The Millionairess” were mixed. I suspect the production must have improved considerably during the course of the run.
Had conditions allowed, we would have attended The Shaw Festival production of “The Millionairess” a second time. I never again expect to see as fine a production of the play.
If the production were to transfer to The Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis-Saint Paul audiences would go wild.