Present Laughter: But Not Hilarious Laughter
Kevin Kline was made for this kind of thing. He has the presence and the comic timing that work so well with Noël Coward. He has the ability to elevate it from the droll to the hilarious. Effortlessly. So I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see him star as the egotistical and charming Garry Essendine, the centerpiece character in Present Laughter. Written in 1939, the show wasn’t actually staged until 1942 as part of an English tour along side Coward’s domestic drama, The Happy Breed, and eventually Blithe Spirit (you know how I love some good theatre history trivia).
But once I arrived at the theatre, I noticed, much to my glee, that this classic comedy also stars Kristine Nielsen, who is quickly becoming one of my all time favorite comic actors to watch on the stage. She manages, somehow magically, to invest her characters with such humanity and depth while bordering on the hysterical. She has a unique ability to drag every humorous ounce out of a line of dialogue that don’t necessarily seem all that funny to begin with. This quality is most evident in such breathtakingly funny performances as You Can’t Take It With You, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, and Hir (I only wish I had the chance to see her at the Public Theater a few years back with Laura Benanti in Christopher Durang’s Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them). Here, she plays with an amazing level of hilarity, Monica, his faithful and sarcastic secretary. Joining Nielsen in the featured actress department is also Kate Burton, who graces every show she appears in (namely Some Americans Abroad, Hedda Gabler, and The Constant Wife). She portrays Liz Essendine, the one true and constant protector of Garry, the famed ex-wife. Liz is more importantly part of the tight knit professional family that surrounds the oblivious and self-centered Garry, as he indulges in his quest for the admiration of all sorts of women and his affection for sleeping as late as he desires.
Not to take your attention away from Kline, but making their Broadway debuts, we have the lovely Cobie Smulders (Love, Loss, and What I Wore) as the smoldering Joanna Lyppiatt, chewing up all that she deserves. She’s an equal match for Kline’s self obsessed Garry, one that he is challenged to ignore. Playing Daphne Stillington, the younger and less confident admirer of the ‘great’ actor, Tedra Millan makes a fun and feisty first go on the Broadway stage after being so impressive in her run as #46 in The Wolves at The Duke on 42nd. She throws herself gleefully into the giddy part, almost with too much pizzazz. All the women are in love with Kline’s Garry, and although that fact maybe a little hard to take, it’s just the way Garry likes it.
Rounding out this stellar cast of scenery chewers, is the solid Peter Francis James (The Public’s Stuff Happens) as Joanna’s husband, Henry Lyppiatt, and part of Garry’s team of theater enablers, his producer, and the esteemed Reg Rogers (You Can’t Take It With You, Privacy) as the good friend and manager, Morris Dixon, who hams it up a bit too much at numerous moments of faux-drama. The very funny Bhavesh Patel (Indian Ink) as the pushy and preposterous playwright, Roland Maule, giggles and forces his way into the room, sometimes with a bit too much volume. It’s a tad distracting, to say the least, but in some ways it fits in with the other members of this eccentric group that populate Garry’s world, much like his odd housekeeper, Miss Erikson (the delightfully deadpanned Ellen Harvey) and his faithful butler, Fred (the charming Matt Bittner). They all take the madcap descriptive of Present Laughter very seriously. Maybe a bit too over-the-top seriously.
But does it make for a great night at the theatre? Or a hilarious one? I wouldn’t say that. It is quite good though, without a doubt, funny, but somehow the piece overall is lacking. The play is perfectly staged by director, Moritz Von Stuelpnagel, who does a lovely job keeping the action rolling along although a few gags are repeated and repeated a bit too often. It’s beautifully designed by set designer, David Zinn, who has done an utterly charming job creating the London residence of actor/star, Garry Essendine, and it’s lovingly created (costume designer, Susan Hilferty and lighting designer, Justin Townsend have both filled the stage with beauty from their perspective fields). Kline nails his role as the self-centered actor that everyone seems to center his or her life around and love on. He joyfully prances, stutters, elocutes, and (over) acts out a multitude of hilarious responses. The self-referential jokes fly one after the other, with some of the bits becoming repetitive. Nielsen gets the balance just right, along with the formidable Burton’s grounded comic turn. The others never fall off the witty tightrope but their step isn’t as steady. All the deliciously appealing lines are delivered with a firm grasp of timing and wit with charming high-end accents. I found myself laughing appropriately, and enjoying myself, mildly. Which I must say, was a bit of a disappointment. This troupe of pros doles out all of Coward’s charming dialogue with finesse, but the madcap fun or hilarity found in other Broadway theaters this spring (The Play That Goes Wrong) isn’t quite there. Maybe Coward is not quite brave enough for this modern time. It might just be a bit too dusty.