Written as a bravura role for Coward himself and an affectionate parody of his own life and persona at the time, this light comedy has been reset in in a pre-war 1939, the year the play was written and was supposed to be premiered prior to the beginning of W.W. II. Preparing for an African tour of six plays in repertory, matinee idol Garry Essendine can’t keep his public away. Infatuated, would-be actress Daphne Stillington, young enough to be his daughter, throws herself at him. Would-be playwright, the more-than-slightly crazed Roland Maule wants to take up his time. And Joanna, the glamorous, predatory, recently-wed wife of his producer wants him also as another notch on her belt.
Keeping him sane and out of most troubles are his staff and “family”: his ex-wife Liz who looks on with a jaundiced, cool eye; Monica, his blasé secretary of 17 years; his nonchalant valet Fred; his housekeeper and cook, the eccentric Swedish Miss Erikson; his phlegmatic producer Henry Lyppiatt; and his temperamental agent and now his director Morris Dixon. Didn’t they all keep him from throwing money away on a lavish production of Peer Gynt in which he would have been terrible? But then, of course, they all confide in him and he knows all of their secrets. Things get more and more complicated as he approaches his departure date, and isn’t his hair thinning as his next unwanted birthday wends his way?
The lines and repartee are clever, Moritz Von Stuelpagnel’s polished direction speeds up as the four scenes in two acts evolve, and David Zinn’s set and Susan Hilferty’s period costumes are chic. The private lives of the very famous, something Coward knew a great deal about, are enough to drive a person crazy – and almost does in Garry’s menagerie. The characters are reputedly drawn from his own life but like The Man Who Came to Dinner you don’t have to know the originals to enjoy the fun. Period songs associated with such legends as Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Dick Hyman precede each scene in Fitz Patton’s professional sound design.
As the ageing matinee idol who never forgets to check his appearance in the mirror, Kline plays a man who is always acting, both on stage and off. His animated physicality in his roles has always been in evidence but here he outdoes himself. Using his arms, hands, head, face and body as his canvas, he is almost never still showing us what can be done on each and every line. He makes even an ordinary line into a witticism and his comebacks wither with every additional jibe. He cajoles, seduces, emotes, wheedles and at the same time suggests he pities himself. He creates a bigger than life character (is John Barrymore his model?) and watching him is a lesson in consummate acting. So completely does he make Garry Essendine his own, you cannot imagine anyone else in the role – although among other New York revivals he has been played by such stars as George C. Scott, Frank Langella, Victor Garber and Coward himself.
Burton who has played a good deal of drawing room comedy in her distinguished stage career is a charmer as Liz, Garry’s ex-wife from whom he has never quite gotten around to divorcing. Not only does she glitter throughout the play with just the right style, but her timing is impeccable as she knows exactly how to run Garry’s life for him. Nielsen, who is so often over the top in her performances, here keeps herself in check and makes all of her lines imply more than they say, quite a feat. Her Monica has seen it all and she doesn’t let anything faze her. She also stands up to the bullying Garry quite effectively. As the wife of Garry’s producer, Cobie Smulders, making her Broadway debut as Joanna, is alluring and elegant in the way of Cleopatra or Helen of Troy. Graceful, stylish and urbane, she glitters while at the same time making her predatory motives perfectly obvious. She is a tremendous asset to the New York stage.
The supporting cast varies wildly. Bhavesh Patel, who has previously appeared in War Horse at Lincoln Center, is over-the-top as Roland Maule, the young playwright who has developed an infatuation with Garry’s talent and fame. In the role that first made Nathan Lane famous, he creates a character who is absolutely outrageous in his demands and mannerisms. As the 22-year-old has decided that Garry needs her, Tedra Millan is a bit too giggly to make us see what he thinks he sees in her other than the flattery of an attractive young woman. Ellen Harvey makes the most of her few opportunities as the decorous and solemn housekeeper who is into séances and whose dour demeanor is itself a form of humor. Neither Peter Frances James as a bland Henry, Garry’s producer, and Reg Rogers as Garry’s overly emotional agent and director make much of an impression. In a brief second act appearance, Sandra Shipley as society woman Lady Saltburn is both aristocratic and cultivated.
As originally written, Noel Coward’s Present Laughter is an entertaining but old fashioned drawing-room comedy with juicy roles for actors. With Kevin Kline in the leading role, the play is elevated to the next level and plays like a comedy masterpiece. Kline’s performance is one you will not want to miss. Some of his co-stars like Kate Burton and Kristine Nielsen also give indelible performances.
Present Laughter (through July 2, 2017)
St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 877-250-2929 or visit http://www.laughteronbroadway.com
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission