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.
By Karen Isaacs
Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak has directed a stylish and fast-paced production of Nöel Coward’s classic comedy Private Lives. I, for one, truly enjoyed it. Yet I also had a quibble or two.
Private Lives was written for Coward and his good friend Gertrude Lawrence, though a lesser known fact is that Laurence Olivier played the stodgy Victor. So the play reflects the Coward style — fast paced, clipped dialogue, witty epigrams and for the time, a shocking lack of acceptance of social standards. It is a play that you cannot imagine being done in a Southern drawl.
The play opens on a hotel on the sea in France. Elyot and Sybil have just arrived for their honeymoon. But even in this glorious setting, you sense all is not necessarily blissful. Sybil is obsessed with Elyot’s first wife — Amanda and their honeymoon, despite the couple having been divorced five years. Plus, Sybil just does not seem to be suited to the more sophisticated Elyot.
As they go into their room to dress dinner, on the adjoining balcony another couple has just arrived for their honeymoon. By strange coincidence it is Amanda (Elyot’s ex) and her new husband Victor. Again — the couple just does seem to “fit” with each other.
It is clear that both Elyot and Amanda have settled for “safe” and perhaps boring spouses after what we learn was a volatile relationship.
As you might guess, soon it is Elyot and Amanda on the balconies — discovering to their consternations each other. Then, each tries to persuade the respective new spouse to leave immediately. Neither will, Victor and Sybil view the requests as ludicrous and spats ensue.
Traditionally, act one ends with Elyot and Amanda, having rediscovered their passion for each other, abandoning their honeymoons to go to Paris together.
Act two takes place in Amanda’s Paris apartment a few days later. It has been blissful but some signs of the old volatility is beginning to creep into the relationship. Squabbling — fueled in part by alcohol — is increasing. In fact, the two end up in physical violence towards each other — which may horrify a society sensitized to the evils of domestic violence. It is into this scene that Sybil and Victor arrive having paired up to locate their errant spouses.
The third act is the next day, as the four try to sort themselves out. Each of the new spouses defends his/her errant spouse which soon descends into conflict between the two.
The ending? If you don’t know this play, I won’t spoil it for you.
While this is a comedy — in some respects there are hints that perhaps Albee used in his seminal Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?– this is not say, that the play is heavy. Some would accuse it of being too light and the characters shallow society types. But Coward was a discerning and intelligent commentator on modern society and relationships.
Elyot and Amanda are seemingly rudderless with no purpose in life except to enjoy themselves and with the funds to do just that. But that type of life soon leads to boredom. If you look below the surface, Elyot and Amanda are not only self-absorbed and self-entitled, but putting on a “show” that they are actually living.
Remember, Coward was brought up in genteel poverty; he always felt somewhat outside the “smart set” that lionized him.
Sybil and Victor represent the more conventional and perhaps more truly shallow upper classes. Their lives are equally vapid but they are too obtuse to recognize it and therefore less unhappy.
Overall this is an excellent production starting with the art deco set by Alexander Dodge. I defy anyone not to want to have or at least spend a few days in such places. The costumes by Joshua Pearson also both capture the period and stress the differences between Elyot and Amanda and Victor and Sybil. Add in excellent lighting by York Kennedy and sound design by Michael Miceli.
Special recognition must be given to the dialect coach Gillian Lane-Plescia who coached the performers in very authentic accents while still letting them be understandable to American audiences. This is difficult with the speed of delivery of the dialogue.
One of Tresnjak’s decisions was to remove both of the intermissions. The play now runs approximately 95 minutes. Personally, I think one intermission would have been useful to allow the audience to digest what has come before. Another decision which I question is the staging of the final confrontation between Sybil and Victor. I don’t want to give too much away and I understand the parallels he wanted to draw but I wonder whether it was necessary.
That leads us to the cast. Too often, the actors in this play are established stars in their 40s; in the script Elyot is the oldest but his only mid-thirties. Tresnjak has cast younger performers.
Ken Barrett as Elyot seems most at home with the ’30s sophisticated style and dialogue. Rachel Pickup is very good as Amanda while Jenni Barber emphasis the rather immature and annoying aspects of Sybil. Henry Clarke as Victor seems one-dimensional.
Private Lives is most enjoyed by those who want stylish, seemingly superficial comedy yet are willing to recognize the hidden depths.
Private Lives is at Hartford Stage through Feb. 8. For tickets contact www.hartfordstage.org.
By Karen Isaacs
A new school year and a new theater season. Not really because for most of us, the theater season year begins in Connecticut around June 1st and runs to May 31st. At least those are the approximate dates that the Connecticut Critics Circle uses for its annual awards eligibility.
Each year as I look over the productions scheduled, a few stand out to me.
Why? It may be a play that I particularly like or a work that is seldom produced and I want to see performed. It may be director or cast. Or it can be the topic that sounds intriguing, often for new works.
So let me share with you the productions that I’ve circled on my calendar. (One caveat — Goodspeed and Ivoryton have not yet announced their 2015 seasons). I’ve listed these in order of their openings.
Ether Dome at Hartford Stage, Sept. 11 – Oct. 5. A brand new play with a Hartford angle, this co-production is about the invention of ether as an anesthetic in 1846. Yet the conflict between altruism and money seems very modern.
Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn at Goodspeed, Sept. 19 to Nov. 30. Yes, I know it is another musical of a classic Hollywood musical (starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire), but it has a great music and dancing. I can’t wait to see how the story and dancing are adapted to Goodspeed’s small stage; but I’m betting it will be terrific.
Comedy Is Hard at Ivoryton Playhouse, Sept. 24 to Oct. 12. A new play by comedy writer Mike Reiss (I’m Connecticut) with two established performers, Mickey Dolenz and Joyce De Witt in a story about a stand-up comic and a classical actress at a retirement home.
Olives and Blood at the Connecticut Rep, Oct. 2 to 12. A new play about post Civil War Spain, the execution of the great playwright/poet Federico Garcia Lorca and the man presumed to be the murderer. It’s all about political repression and the power of art.
Arcadia at Yale Rep, Oct. 3-25. Tom Stoppard is one of my favorite modern playwrights — I love his intellectuality and his creativity. Arcadia is I play I have previously thoroughly enjoyed. And James Bundy is directing. What more can I say?
Hamlet at Hartford Stage, Oct. 16 – Nov. 9. Yes another Hamlet, but I’m looking forward to it for one big reason: Darko Tresnjak is directing and he has proven to be a master at directing Shakespeare — recently his Macbeth, Tempest and Twelfth Night have all been terrific.
War at Yale Rep, Nov. 21-Dec. 13. This is a world premier by a playwright (Branden Jacobs-Jenkins) I don’t know, but the description sounds very interesting: siblings dealing with a comatose mothers and shocking claims about their grandfather’s WWII duty.
Forever by Dael Orlandersmith at Long Wharf, Jan. 2 – Feb. 1. A world premier by a playwright whose works such as Yellowman have received fine productions at Long Wharf and contributed to a discussion about race.
Dancing Lesson at TheaterWorks, Jan. 23 – March 1. I just saw this new play by Mark St. Germain in the Berkshires and you can read my review. While it is somewhat predictable, if the acting is as good in Hartford as it was there, you will be in for an amazing evening in this romantic comedy about an injured dancer and a man with Asperger’s.
Reverberation at Hartford Stage, Feb. 19 -March 15. The two previous plays by Matthew Lopez that Hartford Stage has produced (The Whipping Man and Somewhere) have been intriguing works even if not perfect. This one about a man who has withdrawn from the world and the woman who tries to coax him out of his shell seems like it will also be intriguing.
Good People at TheaterWorks, March 20 to April 26. I like David Lindsay-Abaire’s plays and when I saw this one in NYC, I thought and talked about it for weeks. Audiences are bound to have some lively discussions about the play and the characters — who is the hero? What is ethical?
brownsville song (b-side for tray) at Long Wharf, March 25- April 19. This new play is by Kimber Lee, last year’s Aetna Fellow at Hartford Stage. It got raves at the Humana Festival. Certainly the subject matter — the death of a promising urban youth speaks to our communities.
The Pianist of Willesden Lane at Hartford Stage, March 26-April 19. The subject matter of this play appears fascinating. It’s based on a true story of a young Jewish musician sent to London during the Blitz. The music will be performed by the daughter of the saved woman.
Band of the Black Hand at Connecticut Rep, March 26-April 5. The Split Knuckle Theatre wowed me with its production at Long Wharf in June. Now this innovative new company is performing a film noir inspired play at the CRT’s second theater. I’ll be there.
The Liar at Westport Country Playhouse, May 5-23. Take a modern playwright (David Ives of Venus in Fur) and a classic French playwright (Pierre Corneille) and have the former adapt the latter’s comedy of manners about a liar who is in love. The result should be delicious.
Others I’m anticipating with pleasure
Annapura at TheaterWorks, Oct. 3- Nov. 9. Playwright Sharr White blew me away with The Other Place, so I am looking forward to this new work. The plot seems a little “way out there” but I’m sure TheaterWorks will do its usual outstanding job.
Cloud Nine at the Connecticut Rep, Oct. 23 – Nov. 2. I’ve heard a lot throughout the years about this Caryl Churchill comedy about Empire building, colonization, sex and the English. I really hope I have the time to finally see it.
Private Lives at Hartford Stage, Jan. 8-Feb. 1. I have a soft spot for Nöel Coward plays and I expect director Darko Tresnjak to do his usual outstanding job with this classic comedy.
Proof at Playhouse on Park, Jan. 21 to Feb. 8. The play by David Auburn won the Pulitzer, the small cast should be perfect for this company and the plot is all about relationships and math. I’m in.
The Wildest!!!The Musical Sounds of Louis Prima & Keely Smith at Seven Angels Theater, Feb. 12 to March 8. It may be a jukebox musical but certainly the music should be great. Prima combined New Orleans jazz and the Big Band era. Smith was a classic jazz song stylist. I have hopes for this one.
The Dining Room at Playhouse on Park, Feb. 18-March 8. A.R. Gurney is one of my favorite playwrights. The Dining Room may seem like a light comedy but there is surprising depth, as in many of his works. I always enjoy seeing it.
The Importance of Being Earnest Playhouse on Park, April 15- May 3. It is one of THE classic comedies so it no one does anything weird to it, it should be great. The caveat? The actors need the style and timing to carry it off; plus British accents.
Elevada at Yale Rep, April 24-May 16. Another world premier, this is billed as a romantic comedy about two 20-somethings both seeking after and afraid of love.
The Second Mrs. Wilson at Long Wharf, May 6-31. Edith Wilson is a fascinating historical characters whose actions during the last 18th months of her husband’s presidency have been controversial. What keeps this from the top of my list is my reservations about playwright Joe DiPietro who is best known for much lighter works.
Kiss Me Kate at Hartford Stage, May 14 – June 7. Darko Tresnjak won a Tony (and almost every other NYC directing award) for directing A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. I can’t wait to see what he does with this classic backstage musical by Cole Porter.
The Touring Shows
I’ve seen most of the touring shows on Broadway, but there are a few I am really looking forward to seeing again.
At the Bushnell in Hartford, Kinky Boots (June 23-28) is high on my list, along with Evita (Sept.
23-28). I also enjoyed in NYC Nice Work If You Can Get It (Feb. 3-8) which had great dancing and all those Gershwin songs.
The Shubert is presenting Matilda, the Musical (May 16-23) which I liked but didn’t love. Newsies, a high energy show is at the Palace in Waterbury (Oct. 24-25)