An unruly cast of stylish denizens has arrived at the St. James Theatre just in time to relieve the torpor of all of us currently afflicted by, well, almost everything, and offer the New York spring season a comic confection whose ability to delight and distract almost never falters.
Noël Coward wrote his 1939 autobiographical comedy “Present Laughter” with the “sensible object of offering [himself] a bravura part!” He succeeded so well that a long list of consequential leading men has gamboled through the role of the endlessly posturing actor Garry Essendine.
Now it is Kevin Kline’s turn to mark his welcome return to Broadway by conjuring the fading matinee idol to great comic effect. Despite being adrift somewhere in the mid-Atlantic while the rest of the company’s accents are firmly located in Coward’s studio in Belgravia — and astonishingly on the cusp of his eighth decade, essaying a part that has him bedding enthusiastic 24-year-olds while only reluctantly confessing to 57 — Mr. Kline is so compulsively watchable, so utterly and consummately in control of the proceedings that we simply surrender to an actor at the top of his game.
Remarkably, Mr. Kline contrives not to over-act even when his character is meant to be doing just that, which allows us room to be taken in, shaken out and credibly beguiled by someone with whom multiple characters both male and female are constantly falling in and out of love — or merely limerence. Understated, elegant and endlessly physically inventive, in Kline’s restlessness we catch glimpses of someone who frets they may cease to be when even briefly out of the spotlight. And very occasionally, as in a beautifully played bit of business after hanging up a phone, we glimpse true depth of feeling.
The premise for all this merriment involves Kline’s Garry Essendine about to embark on a tour of Africa, surrounded by his surrogate family: his ex-wife Liz, his secretary Monica, his valet Fred, his housekeeper Miss Erikson, his director Morris and his producer Henry. The departure is complicated by the intrusions of a duo of star-struck sycophants: aspiring playwright Roland Maule and aristocratic debutante Daphne Stillington with whom Essendine has shared a night of ill-advised passion as the play begins. The action is brought to a head through the schemes of Henry’s relatively new wife Joanna.
Staged by the talented Moritz von Stuelpnagel, who was Tony nominated for the surreally brilliant “Hand To God,” attention is paid here, as it was there, to anchoring the farcical frivolity in a way that allows us to believe that real things are happening to real people in real situations, though Coward’s sleight of hand is such that we are meant never to be sure who is being sincere about anything or even whether they know themselves! But we believe that they are attempting to solve the challenges of being in lust, in love or perhaps more importantly in friendship as best they can. Marred only by a couple of moments of curiously awkward staging, Stuelpnagel deploys his ensemble throughout this clockwork comedy to generally excellent effect on a luxurious and amusing set designed by David Zinn, with glamorous costumes designed by Susan Hilferty. (Has more comic fun ever been mined from the trying on of a dressing gown?)
Coward believes we all take sex much too seriously, and it is affirming to note that the female characters are in no way left out of the fun he proposes we have in and out of bed. Each has agency over both themselves and their relationship to Essendine, whether the claim is one of attachment, lust, or a potentially messy combination of both.
Kate Burton as the congenial former wife Liz, who both left Garry and remains as part of the “firm” on her own terms, needs to convince us that she is the smartest (and potentially most alluring) person in the drawing room — the Beatrice to his Benedict. In this interpretation, Liz is not quite sufficiently high style, more dotingly maternal than commanding, and as a result we lose some of the comic charge as events accelerate in later scenes.
In her Broadway debut, Cobie Smulders creates a contained and cool Joanna, the tigress among the pigeons. So cool in fact that it is almost as though her character were merely the foil for the antics of the others, as opposed to the sexual disrupter of an ecosystem that never fully accepted her. This lessens both comic and sexual tension in places where we would happily enjoy more of both.
Tedra Millan, as the groupie debutante who won’t take no for an answer, successfully navigates the tricky territory of being simultaneously appealing and excruciating. Less successful is Bhavesh Patel as the equally obsessive aspiring playwright, who sometimes presents as irritatingly whiny rather than propulsively funny. This duo is drawn like moths to the flame of stardom, looking to celebrity worship to provide something they need instead to seek in themselves. The contemporary parallels are wonderfully apt.
Among the joys of the able supporting players is Kristine Nielsen as the all-seeing, all-knowing and endlessly forgiving secretary. She plies her comic genius such that sardonic wit at one end of the spectrum and uninhibited pratfalls at the other all become an indispensible part of the proceedings. In this, she is joined by Ellen Harvey as the dour Scandinavian housekeeper who turns a single-syllable ejaculation into a moment of unforgettable five-syllable hilarity!
Matt Bittner as Fred, the cheerful valet, shows us that even the lower orders are not left out of Coward’s jolly sexual revolution. Peter Francis James’ somewhat dim but dishy Henry props up the comic conceits with verve, as does Reg Rogers’ dolorous put-upon director, Morris.
In the end, “Present Laughter” demonstrates a striking moral compass and a perversely authentic humanity. Coward was thoroughly in and out of fashion even in his own lifetime as in ours. As a beautifully structured comedy well and honestly done, “Present Laughter” is not required to quest for contemporary relevance in order to justify its production or our enjoyment. But it is worth noting that as he wrote the play, Coward was aware that the coming world war might bring “nothing less than the end of civilization as we know it.” When Essendine says, “I am surrounded by lies and intrigues and sickening emotionalism. I am not going to put up with it a moment longer,” we long to exhale with fellow feeling. Despite the frustration expressed by his onstage alter ego, Coward remains steadfastly tolerant of human fallibility and mendacity. Coward’s answer to coexisting with our imperfections lies in a repudiation of moral absolutism. Instead, he favors the sustenance gleaned from true friendship: “Here we are… woven together by affection and work and intimate knowledge of each other. It’s too important to risk breaking for any outside reason whatsoever.” A sentiment among many in “Present Laughter” that sends us from the theater warmed and cheered.
“Present Laughter” opened at the St. James Theatre on Wednesday, April 5, 2017.
Creative: Written by Noël Coward; Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel; Scenic Design by David Zinn; Costume Design by Susan Hilferty; Lighting Design by Justin Townsend; Sound Design by Fitz Patton; Hair Design by Josh Marquette.
Producers: Jordan Roth, Jujamcyn Theaters, Spencer Ross, Bruce Robert Harris and Jack W. Batman, AC Orange Entertainment LTD, Grove Entertainment, Stephanie P. McClelland, Eric Falkenstein, Harbor Entertainment, Joe Everett Michaels/Robert F. Ryan and Daryl Roth; Executive Producer: Red Awning and Nicole Kastrinos.
Cast: Kevin Kline, Kate Burton, Kristine Nielsen, Cobie Smulders, Matt Bittner, Ellen Harvey, Peter Francis James, Tedra Millan, Bhavesh Patel, Reg Rogers, Sandra Shipley.