New York City Theater
St. James Theater
Welcome back, Kevin Kline. Despite his film successes, it’s on stage where one of Broadway’s favorite actors belongs. As a Noël Coward manqué in the penetrating revival of that author’s “Present Laughter,” Kline is an exuberant, touching, madcap, charming, sensual, smart-aleck hambone.
The comedy – and it is, at times, hilarious –- isn’t heavy on plot, but what there is centers around Garry Essendine who’s preparing for a theatrical tour in Africa. A matinee idol, Garry is the epitome of the misunderstood, randy, besieged, egotistical actor who, though always in the public eye, seeks privacy between dalliances.
His plans are waylaid by people who seek to infiltrate his defenses. First is the wonderfully named Daphne Stillington who emerges from a downstairs spare room. The ambitious teenager will make professional and personal demands on Garry with whom she has obviously spent the night. Her appearance is readily accepted by his staff (the phlegmatic, chain-smoking, Miss Erickson, and the seen-it-all, would-be Lothario, Fred), as well as by loyal, frazzled secretary Monica and understanding, separated wife, Liz.
When our hung-over hero wakes, he has trouble maneuvering not only the stairs but Daphne out the door. Soon, he’s beset by his agent Henry Lyppiatt, his director Morris Dixon and Henry’s beautiful wife Joanna who is not only having an affair with Morris but has designs on Garry. Also in the mix are batty, arrogant playwright Roland Maule, who looks as if he just came out of a kitchen blender, contrasting with the elegant Lady Saltburn, aunt of the predatory Daphne.
All are predatory, in fact. All want something from Garry; all shine in his reflected glory. Trouble is, Garry turns that glory on and off at will. Constantly conscious of himself (he never passes a mirror without checking how he looks), Kline’s aging Garry flutters his hands, arranges his body, tosses out epigrams with ease and is aware enough of himself to say, “I’m always acting; I see myself all the time.”
But Coward goes beyond his own talent to amuse. His insight into celebrity takes Garry to places of solitude and frustration. When Garry tries to be sincere, he insists, “I’m not acting,” but no one believes him. Then later, “We’re creatures of tinsel and sawdust. I have nothing that I want.”
This first-rate production bypasses the high tones of Mayfair in favor of a more lived-in environment. David Zinn’s set accommodates shelves of books and wall posters announcing Garry in some play or other. Stylishly directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, the actors notch up the comedy without losing reality.
Kate Burton is a no-nonsense Liz, Kristine Nielsen a sly Monica and Cobie Smulders a smoldering Joanna. Also outstanding are the ever-reliable Reg Rogers as the self-pitying Morris and Ellen Harvey as the tough Miss Erikson.
Coward took his title from a speech in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” beginning with “What is love? ’Tis not hereafter; present mirth hath present laughter.” So it is with this splendid production: mirth and laughter fill the theater. Yet, touches of desolation and sadness are there, too.
--David A. Rosenberg
April 16, 2017