David Zinn’s sumptuous stage design for the Broadway production of Present Laughter means that, rather like the possibly seduced and definitely abandoned ladies that find themselves there, we’d all like to spend some time in aging idol Garry Essendine’s 1939 London apartment.
This large, light living space features a central chaise longue, paintings, and books, an unseen guest room—even if it is freezing cold—and an unseen office, where the actor’s poor, put-upon secretary Monica takes refuge from the madness frothing around her vain boss.
Unseen rooms are vital for farce—serving as holding chambers for suddenly shoved bodies—as this production of Noël Coward’s semi-autobiographical comedy, starring Kevin Kline as Garry, a nearly past-it roué who likes attention but not that much attention at close quarters, shows all too vividly.
Up some stairs, also unseen, there is Garry’s bedroom, where you sense he’d spend a lot more time in delicious peace if only he was darned well allowed to. And there is an unseen kitchen where his put-upon domestic staff, the stern Miss Erikson (Ellen Harvey) and happily servile Fred (Matt Bittner) appear from with trays of sustenance and other kinds of emergency help. They have seen it all before.
The first lady caller—they all come to seek refuge, having, ehem, forgotten their latch-key—is Daphne, a young actress played with a sweet but stubborn intensity by Tedra Millan. She smiles radiantly, and for all her girlishness, will not be easily cast aside.
Kline, a masterful comic actor in speech and gesture, and here using every scowl, smile, and feint at his disposal, plays an actor acting perfectly, mixing both charm and over-dramatic frustration when he can’t get his own way. The dialogue is Coward at his most crisp and arch. Garry is so much the actor, the real him is the actor. Being an actor is one role he cannot cast off.
Many men watching Kline will inevitably covet the standout costumes of the night: his beautiful silk dressing gowns—hey, this is Coward, we’re not in jeans and T-shirt territory—designed by Susan Hilferty.
As directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, Kline’s Garry flings himself on a couch in despair, and always when he goes to answer the door he performs a little check on his hair in the mirror. (The moment he chooses not to is delicious.) If Garry is frustrated by the fuss of romantic attention, he is also aware that aging means he must take as much as he can while he can.
Fortunately, his vanity and pomposity has an in-house puncture kit in the imposing and acid form of Monica. Her portrayer, the wonderful Kristine Nielsen, is Kline’s equal, if not his upstager. It is she who takes control of the romantic messes he makes, and she who parries expertly not just with Garry but also his estranged wife, the crisp, wry, and capable Liz (Kate Burton).
Liz and Garry are on such good terms that she too only rolls her eyes in weary, all-knowing amusement at the fixes he gets himself into, the most grave of which comes with his relationship with Joanna Lyppiatt (Cobie Smulders), wife of his producer Henry (Peter Francis James) and also passingly involved with another associate, Morris (Reg Rogers). She likes to think she is the seductive slayer of all these men, but is she? Will Garry leave for an upcoming tour of Africa unscathed? He is even more worried about returning unscathed.
Into the mix is also thrown Roland Maule (Bhavesh Patel), a fan and playwright who wants to be close to and spend time with Garry for unspecified reasons. Is it sexual? That isn’t made clear, and it isn’t played that way by Patel.
There’s more than a hint of danger to Maule’s lunacy: It’s an all-consuming fandom—a stalker by today’s standards, but back in 1939 and within the determinedly pleasant confines of Present Laughter, Maule is just someone a little rum to accommodate and then try to discard as painlessly as possible.
If Maule’s desire to connect with Garry is undefined, it is also not clear what, if any, sex is even happening between Garry and Daphne and Joanna, so firmly sequestered in the spare room as the women are. His apartment seems a site of unfulfilled lust on the women’s part. (Coward was gay, which perhaps explains all this shadow-play: The piece, first staged in 1942, was written long before homosexuality was seen on stage.)
In true farce, the audience knows all the points of stress before they are revealed and combust and so, while the women are shoved into the spare room and demented Maule into the office, we should be rubbing our hands for the moments of revelation.
However, we don’t. Smulders plays Joanna with a glinting shrewishness, but Coward also defangs and mocks the character from within—and so she remains a non-threat, especially after she is verbally floored by Liz.
Something in the writing of Present Laughter never raises the stakes to the level of gasping hilarity that true farce can elicit. The urbanity, wit, self-possession, and control of Garry, Monica, and Liz mean that we never think the demons they have to ward off will do as much as even graze their knees.
There’s no real driving plot in Present Laughter, just a battery of Coward’s mots at their most bon. And like the best houseguest, just before it outstays its welcome, it takes its leave.
Present Laughter is at the St. James Theatre. Book tickets here.