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Present!

Noël Coward teases at Circuit; GCT stages Spitfire.

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Thanks to Jerre Dye, I've now publicly mispronounced Noël Coward's Present Laughter at least a half-dozen times. Okay, maybe it's not fair to blame Dye entirely, but besides starring in Circuit Playhouse's good-looking, smartly acted take on the classic Coward comedy, he's also artistic director for Voices of the South and the creative force behind

PreSENT/PREsent, a long-running Christmas show that plays with both the sound and meaning of a certain P-word. So, there's at least one good reason for the accidental tongue-twisting. And there's a surprise benefit as well. Constantly confusing Coward's frothy sex farce with Dye's popular holiday experiment in giving and sharing made me acutely aware of just how much the actor was giving to his audience and sharing with every other actor onstage. It also made director Bob Hetherington's perfectly perverse go at this well-worn material feel like an unexpected gift all tied up with a big art deco bow.

Present Laughter is a deliciously amoral door-slammer built around the amorous life of British stage star, Garry Essendine, a vain and petulant manchild on the verge of a mid-life crisis (and a heterosexual doppelganger for the playwright as well). He's a victim of too much adoration, and in the days leading up to an African tour, his magnetism and inability to say no causes a lot of people to get the wrong idea, including a fan, a friend's wife, and a bizarre young playwright named Roland Maule.

Hetherington's cast is remarkable top to bottom. Standouts include Sarah Hoch who smolders as Joanna, the show's femme fatale, and Standrew Parker, who makes the obsessive Mr. Maule as icky as he can be while keeping the good humor intact.

Dye's full-bore performance is mostly brilliant. It can also be overly busy and exhausting. To paraphrase Coward, eyebrow-arching (like caviar) ought to be a glorious treat, not something one spreads about like marmalade. But for all the excess, he's a clever, committed, and fearless comedian who even makes fun of an advancing bald patch on his own pretty head of hair. Overacting on purpose is a real tightrope walk, and, thankfully, scenes with a pair of beautifully understated actresses, Irene Crist and Claire Hayner (Garry's secretary and wife, respectively), have a calming effect that keeps Dye from vibrating completely off the stage during his manic phases.

Coward didn't put much stock in astrology. "The only stars I can blame for my failures are those that walk about the stage," he once noted. In this case, he might blame some of those stars for what can only be described as a smashing success.

Through May 13th

I'm always surprised by how much I enjoy The Spitfire Grill. I forget that it's not just some formulaic chick flick that's been adapted for the musical stage. Then the lights go down, and I am reminded that, much like the popular film it's based on, this is a disarmingly honest depiction of life in small-town America with a catchy, country-influenced score.

Germantown Community Theatre's Spitfire Grill can't hold a candle to Circuit Playhouse's exceptional 2004 production, but thanks to a spunky cast, it's still a joy to watch and listen to.

The musical tells the story of three very different women whose attempt to raffle off a diner brings a sense of hopefulness to a town that needs it desperately.

The cast is uniformly able. Carolyn Spratley's performance as the grill's crusty owner calls to mind Betty White's ability to unleash laughter by looking like a sweet grandmother and saying whatever the hell she pleases. Robin Wilcox has a great voice and is believably determined as Shelby, a woman who knows there's more to life than washing dishes and ironing clothes. But this show belongs to Ellen Saba, who plays a tough-as-nails ex-con who can't quite outrun her bloody past.

The Spitfire Grill's ending is too contrived, but in this case, it's all about the getting there.

This a no-frills production, but the show doesn't require too much technical flash and dazzle. The orchestra is bare bones, which is understandable in a space as cramped as GCT, but that's still a loss. A large ensemble isn't required, but there are moments when crying fiddles or a little more lonesome mandolin could make a world of difference.

Through April 29th

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