Marcus Cobie Smulders and Kevin Kline
By Ron Cohen
loves Garry Essendine. Ladies say they have lost their “latch keys” as a
pretense to spend the night in his posh apartment. His longtime secretary, Monica,
and even his estranged wife, Liz, watch over him like a pair of guardian
angels. A novice playwright, Roland Maule, grows hysterically giddy in his
presence. Oh, and of course, Essendine loves Essendine; no mirror has ever
failed to catch his attention.
enduring star of the London stage, is the central character in Noël Coward’s Present
Laughter. And judging by the response at a recent performance of the play’s
current Broadway revival, audiences love him as well, particularly as played by
Kevin Kline, who further spices up Coward’s tangy wit with his own genius for
physical comedy. It makes for an irresistible cocktail of a show.
When the show
was first produced in 1942, Coward himself played the role; he later reprised
it in 1958. It has also attracted a long string of marquee names from Peter
O’Toole to George C. Scott and Frank Langella.
The plot is
hardly going to win prizes for originality or even great credibility, as it
frolics quite happily into bedroom farce. While attempting to get ready for a
months-long tour of Africa, Essendine finds himself caught up in a maze of
romantic complications. Most formidable is his being seduced by the alluringly
aggressive Joanna (the very alluring Cobie Smulders). Joanna is not only the wife
of Essendine’s manager (Peter Francis James), she is having an affair with
Essendine’s producer Morris (Reg Rogers).
Nielsen, Kate Burton and Kevin Kline in Present Laughter
morning after, and Joanna must stay impatiently sequestered behind the door of
Essendine’s spare bedroom, when both Henry and Morris appear on the scene.
Additionally, the ditzy debutante (Tedra Millan), who has also enjoyed a recent
overnighter in the Essendine domicile, turns up in the company of her aunt
(Sandra Shipley), an important donor to the London’s theatrical charities.
Finally adding to the confusion is the persistence of the playwright wannabe
Roland (Bhavesh Patel) in expressing his idolatry of Essendine.
the play its appeal is Coward’s unabashed self-critiquing of actorly
peccadilloes: the unstoppable narcissism and the bursts of flamboyance that can
be both magnetic and annoying. Brightening the scene is his affection for the
milieu, the sense of family it can inspire in its practitioners. At the same
time, deepening the portrait just a bit is the threat of diminution of power to
come with age. It’s a melancholy note sounded in the quote from Shakespeare’s Twelfth
Night that gives the play its title: “Present mirth hath present
laughter;/What’s to come is still unsure.”
embodies all these qualities, mixing the tartness of Coward delivery with the
histrionics of a John Barrymore at his most delicious hammiest. Furthermore,
Kline’s better looking than both of them. He exudes the essence of ‘matinee
idol” in its most affable sense. You know that somewhere there’s a real guy
lurking behind the poseur.
Moritz Von Stuelpnagel has guided the company into an infectious appreciation
of Coward’s agility with language and whipsaw repartee, plus the facility, for
the most part, to find the fun in the play’s people without making fun of them.
Especially important are the warmth and intelligence Kate Burton brings to her
portrayal of Essendine’s live-apart wife, Liz. Her boundless affection is
enticingly flavored with a smart dollop of reserve. Equally significant is the
endless ability of Kristine Nielsen as secretary Monica, to turn almost any
routine exchange of dialogue into a laugh. Moreover, with Monica’s morning
discovery of the pajamaed Joanna in the apartment, Nielsen delivers a
double-take for the ages. Rounding out the first-rate cast are Matt Bittner and
Ellen Harvey, each with their own comic take on Essendine’s house staff.
designer David Zinn’s eye-filling depiction of the Essendine flat and Susan
Hilferty’s pitch-perfect costumes – from Essendine’s assorted dressing gowns to
the seductress draping of Smulder’s Joanna – further help to fulfill the aura
of retro glamour that’s so strongly promised by two words: Noël Coward.
the St. James Theatre
246 West 44th