“I’m always acting, watching myself go by,” says Garry Essendine, the aging matinee idol in “Present Laughter,” Noel Coward’s comedy celebrating the elegant pursuit of play and pleasures. Vet stage thesp (and now TV regular) Victor Garber wears silky sophistication and style as comfortably as one of his never-ending series of dressing robes in the Huntington’s sparkling and posh production, which could have a future commercial life, depending on the availability of its star.
Beneath the veneer of vanity, there’s something else going on in Garber’s deft characterization of this faux-troubled ’30s stage star, coming to grips with his age, life and career.
Amid his rants, pouts and posturing, the actor hints at a very special little boy who’s never grown up. He appears to be reinventing himself as Coward in a world where life is always splendid, you’re surrounded by people who simply adore you, and the party never ends. Garber gives the role such heartfelt insincerity that one willingly indulges the ascotted man-child.
Garber and helmer, a.d. Nicholas Martin, also understand that if you’re part of this celebrated actor’s entourage — or have to spend more than 2½ hours in the theater with him — he’d better be an utterly charming and lovable egotist. Garber keeps things aloof but affectionate. His sly self-awareness is kept tantalizingly at bay while he takes the Coward’s way out with consummate grace and skill.
Designer Alexander Dodge’s deluxe deco digs eschew cold chrome and monochromes in favor of a more inviting golden-hue world, bathed in Rui Rita’s always-flattering lighting. But Martin knows that once entering this swank setting, the audience must not be trapped by simple bores, effete poseurs and shallow sycophants.
So the director has assembled a supporting cast that also understands comedy’s need for the likable, the unexpected and even the bizarre.
Falling into the likable category is Lisa Banes as Essendine’s estranged-but-still-loving, still-involved wife. Banes is topnotch as a dry martini of a woman, guiding, coddling and fiercely protecting her eminent man as he navigates middle age. Bringing a delightfully crisp Eve Arden dispatch to the role of the star’s seen-in-all secretary is Sarah Hudnut. Holley Fain is more than fine as the smitten ingenue who falls for Essendine’s well-rehearsed love lines.
Into the unexpected category fall Essendine’s nervy servants: the dour Swedish domestic (hilariously deadpanned by Nancy E. Carroll) and the actor’s snappy valet (James Joseph O’Neil). On a grander scale, there’s also Alice Duffy’s surprising strength (in the show’s best sight gag) as Lady Saltburn. As the seductress Joanna, Pamela J. Gray is wicked fun — and makes quite a case for her predatory kind. Her Fredericks of Hollywood-like, do-me outfit is the only flaw in Mariann Verheyan’s otherwise chic costuming.
As the demented, devoted playwright-fan-stalker, Brooks Ashmanskas (a Tony-nommed featured actor this year for “Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me”) gives a perf that is an out-of-body, not to mention out-of-play, experience.
One could say Ashmanskas’ frantic shtick is too hyper-vaudevillian for Coward country. But there’s something in it that makes comic sense as he breathtakingly goes for broke, leaping over ottomans, throwing himself on the floor or dissolving into the couch in a nanosecond of self-contrition. Perhaps what makes it right is Essendine’s strange acceptance of a man who seems to be as madly desperate for attention as he is.