The silk dressing gowns and suave airs of aging matinee idol Garry Essendine are a fine fit for Victor Garber in “Present Laughter,” as are the quietly melancholy undertones of a charming but vain peacock, too self-absorbed and infantile to appreciate the pleasures life affords him. He’s housed in the swankiest of London apartments in Nicholas Martin’s elegant production, with its gorgeous, honey-toned deco wall treatments and cascading chandeliers, dominated by a portrait of Garry as Hamlet that leaves no doubt as to who’s the center of attention. But those assets can’t keep a certain windy fatigue from creeping into Noel Coward’s comedy.
This fourth Broadway revival of the 1939 play originated at Boston’s Huntington Theater Company in 2007, during Martin’s tenure there as artistic director, and frankly, it could have gained a little more oomph by recasting some of the supporting ranks.
Garry is the closest Coward comes in his plays to actually putting himself onstage. A world-weary playboy preparing to depart for the drudgery of a six-play repertory season in Africa, Garry sees his every need attended to by a retinue that includes his stoic secretary, Monica (Harriet Harris); his estranged but still affectionate wife, Liz (Lisa Banes); and business associates Henry (Richard Poe) and Morris (Marc Vietor). The precarious stability maintained by that unit of old friends is threatened by the escalating chaos of events kick-started not so much by Garry’s indiscretions as by his childlike inability to be alone for more than a few minutes.
Garry is a ceaseless performer, flamboyantly commanding centerstage in his own everyday melodrama. And while Garber purveys a fine line in exquisite boredom, petulance and monumentally put-upon exasperation, it’s obvious the character couldn’t function without his loyal supporters. “A charming constellation of gossipy little planets circling ’round the great glorious sun” is how one resentful outsider puts it.
Martin’s production is at its best — and truest to the sophistication and restraint that is key to Coward’s comedy — when Garry is interacting with that core group. Poe and Vietor can’t do much with their minor roles, but Harris’ brittle acerbity and Banes’ cool, collected veneer play nicely off Garber’s mischievous self-awareness. Both women suggest the intuitive understanding and shorthand communication that come from time-tested, frequently strained but protective relationships with their demanding charge.
It’s with the interlopers that the production’s weaknesses — and the three-act play’s occasionally saggy structure — become apparent. Necessary as it is to lay the groundwork for Garry’s apathetic philandering and the transparent ruse of the women who maneuver their way into his busy evenings, the opening setup is made laborious by Holley Fain’s flat turn as besotted ingenue Daphne. Her comic instincts don’t go far beyond careful attention to the plummy English accent.
More conniving than Daphne but no less stiff a presence is Henry’s man-eating wife, Joanna, given such a studied reading by Pamela Jane Gray that her pivotal second-act seduction of Garry is slowed to a numbing crawl.
At the other end of the spectrum is Brooks Ashmanskas as sycophantic aspiring playwright Roland Maule, his performance an exhausting eddy of prancing moves, demented tics and excited gesticulation that yields laughs but is more often distracting. Ashmanskas is responsible for a funny running physical gag involving Roland’s overly zealous handshake, but while the role calls, to some degree, for excessive antics, there’s a little too much of everything going on in his scenes.
In addition to Alexander Dodge’s swoon-inducing set (which features a staircase worthy of a Jerry Herman musical), the production’s visual polish extends to Jane Greenwood’s soigne costumes and Rui Rita’s mellow lighting, handsomely evoking the shifts between day and night. A sprinkling of Coward songs, including “World Weary” performed by Garber at the piano, and “I’ll See You Again” cooed by the ensemble at the curtain, adds to the refined atmosphere.
It’s all very classy and urbane, as it should be, and there’s an ample stash of still-sparkling gems among the dialogue. But the production is too unevenly cast and paced to be more than mildly amusing.