By Karen Isaacs
Thank heavens for Kevin Kline! His performance in the revival of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter, now at the St. James Theater is worth studying over and over again.
This play, written when Coward was in his early forties, is a comedy about an actor who is a leading man known for romantic comedies. In a few days he is leaving on a tour of Africa but before then there are various complications including a young woman who thinks she is in love with him, a young playwright who wants advice, his estranged wife, and his director, producer and the producer’s wife. His secretary, butler and a housekeeper try to keep things running smoothly.
It is half romantic comedy, and half farce and Kline and the fine cast assembled by director Moritz von Stuelpnagel are all up to the task.
Garry Essendine (Kline) is an aging romantic lead who has incorporated the mannerisms and life style of the characters he plays into his own life. That is to say, he is not only almost always “on” but he can overdo it a bit with affected gestures.
The play opens one morning with a young woman (Daphne) coming out of the guest bedroom in his pajamas and robe. She has obviously stayed the night, because as she explains she had lost her “latch key” (house keys) and he had let her stay. When he finally emerges from his bedroom, he has no recollection of the young woman and it takes him a while to get her to leave. She proclaims undying love and it is clear that Essendine had said some such dialogue to her the night before. But he acts the scene of his renunciation of her as though it were a stage play.
During this time, the stoic secretary (Monica) has arrived to try to keep things in order and the valet is on hand. The apartment is soon bustling as the estranged wife arrives from France. She’s concerned that the wife of the producer is having an affair with the director. The five of them – Essendine, his wife, the director, Morris and the producer, Henry – have been friends and colleagues for years. Essendine and Liz, his wife are afraid that Joanna, Henry’s wife, will destroy the group.
Soon, Roland Maule arrives. It seems that Essndine answered his own phone and made an appointment to see the young playwright. Maule really seems very strange – high strung, nervous and vacillating between attacking Essendine for doing “just light comedy” and groveling. His play is quite bad and he is told to go away, write twenty plays, discard them and perhaps the 21st will be good enough to be produced.
But that are not all of the complications that begin to exasperate Essendine. Maule
returns unexpectedly and refuses to leave. He is fascinated observing the goings on. It also seems that Johanna has arrived the night before, having “forgotten her latch key” – she is wondering around in his pajamas and robe but is much more demanding than Daphne was and seems to have no intention of leaving. Of course, Liz, Monica and Essendine try to hide her presence as her husband and Morris arrive – her husband and lover. Added to the developing chaos is the return of Daphne who has convince her grandmother to arrange an audition for her with Essendine.
Soon, everyone is proclaiming that they have booked passage and will be accompanying him to Africa.
Coward’s drawing room comedies require a deft hand. They are easily overplayed or the sophisticate witticisms can seem pretentious. With this cast, they sound utterly natural. The dialogue must be conversational and not feel forced in any way.
Kline, Kate Burton and Liz, Kristine Nielsen as Monica and the rest of the cast excel in carrying it off. It’s high comedy, it’s farce, but it must seem natural. Timing is everything, but it must not seem forced.
Kline is the ideal actor for this role; he has the good looks to be a romantic leading man, and he can lift an eyebrow to make a point with the best of them. He doesn’t sound like Coward (who originated the part) yet gets all the laughs without seeming forced or trying. Just watching him sit and listen to the others is a class in acting and reacting.
Kristine Nielsen as the unflappable secretary – she’s seen it all before – is the counterpoint to the mayhem that is going on. Yet she manages to not let her stoic nature become unresponsive or boring.
As Liz, Kate Burton has a difficult job – she must convey amusement at Essendine’s peccadillos, but also concern and motherliness as she and Monica must manage the goings on. Underneath you must wonder if she is still in love with him. Although hampered by some unflattering – but period appropriate hats and costumers – she manages it all. She seems cool, calm and collected at all times.
As Roland Maule, the young aspiring playwright, Bhavesh Patel creates the wild eyed demeanor of a potential madman.
Cobie Smulders conveys how dangerous to the five-some is Johanna, Henry’s wife. She is sophisticated and cool and calculating; you must understand why Essendine and Liz have feared her but she must also convey a sense of determination to get her own way and to settle old scores. She has never felt accepted by the group.
Tedra Millan captures the essences of Daphne with a high pitched voice, the enthusiasm of a school girl and the determination of an English debutante.
David Zinn has created a beautiful duplex as Essendine’s home complete with 1930-40’s details. It seems so appropriate for the character. The costumes by Susan Hilferty reflect not only the styles of the period, but the glamour of the characters. Fitz Patton’s sound design adds to the show though I would have preferred some Coward songs to those used. Justin Townsend’s lighting is very good.
I’ve seen several productions of this play including Frank Langella’s performance in 1997. Kevin Kline is the best Essendine that I’ve seen. I would gladly see this production again and again.
Present Laughter is at the St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St. It runs through July 2. For tickets visit ticketmaster.