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Noël Coward's Present Laughter

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 5, 2017

Noël Coward's Present Laughter Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel. Set design by David Zinn. Costume design by Susan Hilferty. Lighting design by Justin Townsend. Sound design by Fitz Patton. Hair design by Josh Marquette. Cast: Kevin Kline, Kate Burton, Kristine Nielsen, Cobie Smulders, Bhavesh Patel, Reg Rogers, Matt Bittner, Ellen Harvey, Peter Francis James, Tedra Millan, Sandra Shipley, Kelley Curran, Rachel Pickup, James Riordan, David L. Townsend.
Theatre: St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Ticketmaster

Kevin Kline
Photo by Joan Marcus

When you need gold-plated ham, who better to turn to than Kevin Kline? He captures theatricality in all its forms: He's at once grand and intimate, comic and tragic, and expansive and pinpoint-precise, yet always anchored to the real world (or a reasonable facsimile). This makes him all but ideal for playing a close-kin creature from a previous era, Garry Essendine, the tumultuous and intemperate British theatre star who's the central figure of Noël Coward's Present Laughter. And in the new revival of the 1939 comedy (first staged on Broadway in 1946) that just opened at the St. James, Kline and Garry fuse so tightly and so well that you're willing to overlook the other parts of Moritz von Stuelpnagel's production that don't.

Of course, that makes sense in the life that Garry has crafted for himself, in which everyone from his devoted secretary Monica to his cordially estranged wife Liz (they remain married, but only technically) to his many assignations (both intended and not) bends to his will. All the world is his stage, as he'll readily admit, and he'll use his acting chops (the extent of which is forever in debate, but never mind that), his bountiful charisma, and his lack of self-control manipulate anything and everything others think of him. And in traipsing through the last few days before his six-week tour of Africa, during which time he must battle with the women, aspiring playwrights, and frustrated collaborators who are desperate for the last vestiges of his attention, these are skills he must exercise frequently.

This comes naturally for Kline, who has no trouble inhabiting the libidinous sphere of Garry as he makes a hangover headache into a three-act melodrama or a pair of romantic encounter into a torrid documentary of lust gone awry. But his Garry is not full of himself, exactly—his vision is of a man who doesn't know, or even believe, he's better than you, but knows that he can only live one way so he'd better get on with it. That's why Kline's portrayal is not one of an overstuffed shirt (or an overpuffed chest), but rather just an ordinary man who's always working to meet the standards of the extraordinary venue that is his existence. It's not difficult, then, for him to be so relatable, even lovable, in spite of the spiral of awful situations in which he forever finds (and inserts) himself.

This is evident, as well, in the oddly down-to-Earth manner with which he interacts with those he's closest to. It's not that he doesn't use the same tricks on Monica (Kristine Nielsen) and Liz (Kate Burton) that he does on everyone else, but that they know them all too well, and are thus better able to keep up on a short leash. No headliner gets to the top of a marquee alone, and these two women won't let him forget it. Kline has worked the constant acknowledgment of this into his performance, to ensure that the closest thing to the "real" Garry comes through when he's dealing with them, which speaks volumes. So, too, does the drop in his defenses in his scenes with Joanna (Cobie Smulders), the wife of his director, Henry, tells you everything you need to know about where he stands with her (or where he thinks he does—no one ever said Garry's judgment is perfect all the time).

This becomes crucial later on, as the woes and entanglements surrounding Garry and Joanna's pseudo relationship form the only real spine of plot in what is primarily a gilded character study of a play. Present Laughter is, ultimately, only as good as its Garry (a part that Coward himself originated), so it matters that Kline meets and surmounts its challenges so readily. It likewise helps immensely that Burton matches him note for sweeping note with her unflappable, whip-smart Liz, and that Smulders, making a scintillating Broadway debut, is a perfectly smoky of a strongly contrasting vintage. Both rise to Kline's elevated position, and elevate him in turn; so, too, does Nielsen, who gives Monica the kind of wacky, intellectual-antic spin she brings to all her parts, even though she sacrifices some of the character's ironclad authority to get there.

Kristine Nielsen, Kate Burton, and Kevin Kline
Photo by Joan Marcus

Still, it's best if everything else supports Garry, and not everything does. Although von Stuelpnagel has staged the action capably on David Zinn's towering townhouse set (Susan Hilferty did the lush costumes, Justin Townsend the fine lights, and Fitz Patton the sound), he hasn't settled on a unifying style for either the actors or the atmosphere. Sometimes he does find the correctly brittle gin-scented sophistication with which Coward is so closely associated, but other times it descends to something nearer to slapstick, if not mud-wallowing farce.

Tedra Millan is shrilly over the top as Daphne Stillington, a society gal with theatrical aspirations, who gets mixed up in Garry's cavalcade a bit too early; the excitement and wonderment she displays at the expense of all else is feverish and forced. Ellen Harvey is a caricature, and almost a grotesque, as Garry's domineering housekeeper, and Bhavesh Patel is violently overeager as the experimental playwright who idolizes Garry (and is saddled with a quickly exhausted running gag about handshaking that tests the boundaries of obviousness). Other cast members, including Peter Francis James as Garry's producer, Reg Rogers as his manager, Matt Bittner as his butler, and Sandra Shipley as Daphne's aunt, swing in the other direction, giving foggy (though professional) performances that neither reflect nor refract Garry's personality.

This causes the evening to wobble in places, and the laughs to falter; you don't feel, as you ought to, that you're being yanked into Garry's midlife crisis. It can, and should, be fizzier and more buoyant, particularly in its second half, and the stakes should be higher; they certainly were in the Roundabout mounting of seven years ago, in which Victor Garber starred. Here, we need to gain an even deeper sense that, on some level, this all matters, even if it really doesn't. Otherwise, what's the point? Kline, Burton, Nielsen, and Smulders can do a lot, but they can't do everything.

Still, their efforts are impressive enough that nothing ever sags for more than a few minutes at a stretch. After all, great stars and great plays can never be fully tamed or obscured. Maybe this Present Laughter isn't worth an Africa-remote trip, but its best parts are worth sticking with as far as they can take you—which, thankfully, is pretty far indeed.


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