Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 21, 2010
Present Laughter by Noël Coward. Directed by Nicholas Martin. Set design by Alexander Dodge. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by Rui Rita. Sound design by Drew Levy. Hair & wig design by Tom Watson. Dialect Coach Deborah Hecht. Cast: Victor Garber, with Brooks Ashmanskas, Lisa Banes, Nancy E. Carroll, Alice Duffy, Holley Fain, Pamela Jane Gray, James Joseph O’Neil, Richard Poe, Marc Vietor, and Harriet Harris. This production of Present Laughter was originally produced in May 2007 by the Huntington Theatre Company.
The central figure of Present Laughter must learn that lesson the hard way, of course, but even Noël Coward’s airtight comedy must give him an expert guide. The new Roundabout Theatre Company production at the American Airlines definitely has one in Victor Garber, whose sherry-dry delivery and lemon-tart attitude are a joyous match for this overstuffed peacock of a fading matinee idol. That director Nicholas Martin has mostly surrounded Garber with classy, cunning costars and a velvet-smooth production also doesn’t hurt much. But the heaviest lifting always rests on Garber’s shoulders, and the actor is more than up to bearing the weight - well, such as it is.
Present Laughter is froth with a small side of substance, obviously a work Coward wrote to give himself a lighter-than-air tour de force as Garry (which he originated in England in the early 1940s, though Clifton Webb created Garry in New York), so Garber is in little danger of straining himself. And the urbane detachment that Garry both exudes and repudiates as he prepares to depart on a six-play repertory tour of Africa is a tight fit with the just-above-it-all persona that Garber has so efficiently cultivated on both screen and stage (though this is his first Broadway outing since Art in 1998).
The nonchalance with which Garry downs a class of questionable sherry or the horror with which he considers opening the front door to his palatial London flat without first straightening his hair in a mirror come to Garber with a considered yet effortless ease. He has no trouble embodying the brittle-witted, stiffed-lip, always-on actor, one of the most satisfying and laugh-prone stereotypes (one is hesitant to exactly call him a character) Coward ever committed to paper.
But Garber also maintains a firm grip on a deep confliction just beneath that suggests Garry is aware from the beginning that his façade is about to crack. Some may consider this antithetical to the text, which begins with the latest in a long string of hung-over morning afters for Garry, this time trying to sleep off his latest assignation with a clingy society youth named Daphne (Holley Fain), and ends with him considerably more harried and humbled. Should the beginning predict the end quite so much?
Garber is one of the few imaginable American actors who could successfully reconcile the two, which he does splendidly. He proves equally convincing as needing and hating the high life his society station has thrust upon him - often at the same time, along with a parched delivery the only necessary aspect of Garry’s personality. So when he says early on, “Everybody worships me, it’s nauseating,” it’s not just the plaint of a man who’s putting on a show (which Garry almost continuously is). It’s also a cry for help - and a highly believable one - from the man in the middle who doesn’t want to stay there anymore.
It’s not hard to see why. Garry’s secretary of 17 years, Monica (Harriet Harris), is severely efficient; and his ex-wife - in title if not strictly in fact - Liz (Lisa Banes) fulfills the sparkling old cliché of the woman who knows her man better than he knows himself. But everyone else operates at obtuse angles. His maid (Nancy E. Carroll) and butler (James Joseph O’Neil); a rabid, new-wave playwright longing for career validation (Brooks Ashmanskas); his manager and producer, Morris and Henry (Marc Vietor and Richard Poe); Henry’s needy wife (Pamela Jane Gray); and even Daphne and her aunt, Lady Saltburn (Alice Duffy), all signify a vivid reality that’s becoming in Garry’s eyes more greyscale every day.
Martin and Garber, who collaborated on this play in 2007 at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, elegantly modulate the way Garry navigates all this, as well as the slow-burn immolation he experiences as his compartmentalized affairs (in every sense of the word) begin to consume the world. If the first act could step a bit more spryly, the second and third unfold with the precise pacing and precision of a military invasion. Even the stately beauty of Alexander Dodge’s decadent, two-level set increasingly resembles a shadowy prison, and Jane Greenwood’s glimmering upper-crust costumes straitjackets, as Garry realizes he’s letting the inmates run his own personal asylum.
At least it’s a delightful set of crazies - excepting Harris and Banes, whose respective crisp deadpan and earthily refined sensuality provide more stable pleasures as representing the anchors of sensibility in Garry’s ever-more-unhinged life. Only Ashmanskas pushes too hard, his caffeinated style of slapstick more hyperexaggerated Stan Laurel than dark-alley obsession, and totally at odds with the style of everything else onstage.
Garber and Garry, however, never lose their cool or their composure as they strive to understand what getting older and getting smarter really mean in their modern world. In this production, both men live up to the source of the title, William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “What is love? ‘tis not hereafter; Present mirth hath present laughter; What’s to come is still unsure.”
Garry’s creation of the fictional character of himself has long helped him avoid reality, but may now help him find it - assuming he can clean up the mess he created. His journey from self-rejection to self-realization is solidly funny but slightly sobering as well as Garry’s illusions fade resolutely into the mists of middle age. But Garry’s personal tragedy can come in the future - Garber and his castmates are too busy ensuring that this Present Laughter never lacks for present mirth.