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Present Laughter

What is love? 'Tis not hereafter
Present mirth hath present laughter
— lyric from "O Mistress Mine", a song in Twelth Night from which Noel Coward took his title for Present Laughter.
Present Laughter
L-R: Kristine Nielsen,Kate Burton, Kevin Kline (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Noel Coward never expected Present Laughter to make the list of his biggest hits. It was first staged as part of a 1942 tour in which he alternated playing the comically self-absorbed Garry Essendine with the more serious role of Frank Gibbons in This Happy Breed.

Considering all the productions of what Coward himself admitted was mostly a series of "pyrotechnics" concocted to amusingly mirror himself, Present Laughter has indeed become part of the Coward hit parade. The reasons for the success of those "pyrotechnics" are threefold: It offers a plum role to an older actor. . . it's a a gift to a 10-member ensemble of farceurs. . .it offers audiences a chance to see a play with a big cast, a lavish set great costumes (this time supplied by susan Hilferty) from another era and enjoy a few laughs at the pile-up of people shoved behind the various doors.

Present Laughter's first New York production in 1946 starred that master of the raised eyebrow, Clifton Webb, as Garry. Coward himself appeared here once. And then there was George C. Scott's against-type Garry Essendine at the Circle in the Square in 1982. I'm sorry I didn't see that production which featured Nathan Lane as Roland Maule and Kate Burton (Garry's wife Liz in the current revival) as debutante Daphne Stillington. For Lane, who's now a big enough star for me to picture him as a hilarious and interesting against-type Garry, it was his Broadway debut. For Burton it was a doubly exciting time— to display her comic flair on stage and have a back stage romance with stage manager Michael Ritchie to whom she's still married. The show, overall, doesn't really go full sizzle until the second act.

Kevin Kline's return to Broadway makes him the third Garry Essendine I've covered. Like Frank Langella and Victor Garbor he looks the part of the debonair, aging actor and embodies the man who can't resist a mirror or a romantic fling. His interpretation of the breezy humor this self-caricaturing role calls for is smooth and slick rather than hyper-hammy. His delivery and timing are impeccable and he lets Garry bo into high gear when he becomes completely exasperated with the tangled web he's woven cries: "For the love of God, stop being theatrical!"

Kline makes his entrance from the staircase of the elegant town house (this one a knockout by David Zinn) in which this fluffy farce's two acts unfold. The audience greets him with the applause usual for a well-known actor even though that entrance is almost upstaged by that gorgeously detailed set. After all, what sells tickets to this now more than 70-year-old bit of authorial self-indulgence is the whole package of a well-known star, luscious scenery and costumes, plus lots of Cowardesque zingers and laughs.

The feathery plot unwinds over the course of a week preceding Garry's scheduled African tour. Complications involve the two latest women who pursue him and who he beds — Daphne (a charming, full of gushy adoration Tedra Millan) who harbors thespian ambitions; Joanna (an aptly glamorous Cobie Smulders), who's married to his business partner Henry (Broadway veteran Peter Francis James) and mistress to his other business partner Morris (a deliciously over the top Reg Rogers).

The two women who fail in their efforts to help Garry untangle himself from his latest peccadillos are the wife who left him years ago but has remained his friend and his secretary. With Kate Burton to play Liz Essendine and Kristine Nielsen the super efficient Monica Reed who her boss describes as "churning through life like some frightening old warship," these roles couldn't be in better hands. Both Burton and Nielsen are at the top of their game and this production soars whenever they're on stage. Both handle their dialogue with verve, with Nielsen getting one of my favorite quotable lines: When he expresses his worry about finding himself breathless in a mosquito net covered bed during his African tour, her comeback is a pithy "Who with?"

In addition to a romantically inclined wannabe actress to pursue Garry, Present Laughter also features an outrageously disapproving hopeful playwright named Roland Maule (Bhavesh Patel) whose main contribution is a running joke that has everyone retreating from his painfully powerful handshake. He's amusingly a lot less admiring than Daphne, and actually accuses Garry for misusing his talent "to wear dressing-gowns and make witty remarks, where you might be really helping people, making them think, making them feel."

Unsurprisingly, Essendine gives as good as he gets with "If you want to be a playwright. . ..go and get yourself a job as a butler in a repertory company, if they'll have you. Learn from the ground up how plays are constructed and what is actable and what is not. Then sit down and write at least twenty plays one after the other, and if you can manage to get the twenty-first produced for a Sunday night performance, you'll be damned lucky!"

Of course no traditional comedy like this would be complete without a butler and maid to provide comic relief. Matt Bittner's Fred and Ellen Harvey's chain smoking Miss Erickson do the honors in this production.

While director Moritz Vom Stuelpnagel has wisely refrained from making Kline's Garry overdo the mirror gazing egomania, as Scott Elliott did when he made Frank Langella bare a naked expanse of middle-aged midriff. However, I wish he'd borrowed a leaf from director Nicholas Martin who had Victor Garber singing a Coward song at the top of the second act. Kevin Kline would certainly be up to that given his musical background (The Robber Baron, The Priates of Penzane). A little bit of "don't let your daughter go on the stage, Mrs. Worthington" might have made the scene with Daphne's aunt Lady Saltburn (Sandra Shipley) more fun. The two between scene pauses in the current production, offered another opportunity to do this riff, perhaps with a projection of Kline doing it.

Finally, these days it's easy to see parallels between the self-absorbed Essenden and the self-absorbed man now in the White House. But, while Essenden's elegant silk robes are on full display in this latest incarnation of Present Laughter, the President's bathrobe is kept as much under cover as his financial history— and his early morning tweets lack even a smidgen of Noel Coward's wit. And so, the reason to go to the St. James Theater is to escape from reality for a few hours and enjoy a significantly stylish but thematically insignificant farce in an age weighed down by significantly weighty issues handled with neither wit or wisdom.

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Present Laughter by Noel Coward
Cast (In Order of appearance): Tedra Millan (Daphne Stillington), Ellen Harvey (Miss Erikson), Matt Bittner (Fred),Kristine Nielsen (Monica Reed), Kevin Kline (Garry Essendine), Kate Burton (Liz Essendine), Bhavesh Patel (Roland Maule), Peter Francis James (Henry Lyppiatt), Reg Rogers (Morris Dixon), Cobie Smulders (Joanna Lyppiatt), Sandra Shipley (Lady Saltburn)
Set design by David Zinn
Costume design by Susan Hilferty
Lighting design by Justin Townsend
Sound design by Fitz Patton
Hair design by Josh Marquette
Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis
Stage Manager: James Fitzsimmons
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours 30 minutes including 1 15-minute intermission (There's a 1-minute pause between each act's 2 scenes)
St. James Theatre 246 West 44th
From 3/10/16; opening 4/05/17; closing 7/02/17
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at April 1st press Preview

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