Frank Langella inhabits the tux-and-sherry world of Noel Coward as naturally as a cocktail bar pianist dons tails. He sails through Scott Elliott’s staging of “Present Laughter” without a false note (or a surprising one, for that matter), even when the production itself veers from the all-too-anticipated breezy Brit archness to moments of crudeness and audience-pandering. Elliott, making his Broadway bow after several acclaimed Off Broadway productions, mostly does a journeyman’s job here, leaving little of the personal stamp that might truly have distinguished his debut. “Present Laughter” is everything one might have expected, which is not to say all one might have hoped.
Perhaps the quintessential Coward play, “Present Laughter” never leaves the book-lined studio — Americans would call it a drawing room, or perhaps a den — of a Barrymore-esque ham named Garry Essendine (Langella). Within the upper-crust confines, planet Essendine is encircled by a doting collection of satellites, including his devoted secretary, Monica (Lisa Emery), business associates Henry (Jeff Weiss) and Morris (David Cale) and estranged but still loving wife Liz (Allison Janney). With his constant womanizing and histrionic temperament, the middle-aged thesp creates an emotional whirlwind that has become a wearying way of life for his close cadre of friends.
The particular flurry of “Present Laughter” is set off just as Essendine is about to leave for an extended theatrical tour in Africa (spring 1939). Daphne Stillington (Kellie Overbey), the latest in what’s apparently a long string of indiscretions, promises to be more tenacious than most, pledging her youthful love to the older Essendine following a night of lust, if not passion. Even as she leaves shortly after the play begins, the audience knows she’ll be back to complicate life for the Essendine entourage.
Same goes for Roland Maule (Tim Hopper), an idealistic young playwright obsessed with the famous actor. Disdaining the old-fashioned melodrama in which Essendine indulges (both onstage and off), the young playwright gains admittance to the actor’s lair only to deliver a scathing indictment. Still, he can’t help being drawn into the Essendine orbit, and any latent homosexuality suggested in the text is brought blazingly to the surface as the young playwright does a chase routine worthy of Harpo Marx.
The third and most complicating development of all comes in the comely form of Joanna (Caroline Seymour), the flirtatious young wife of Essendine’s friend and business manager, Henry. The conniving Joanna collects men the way Essendine collects women (although the play, of course, takes a much dimmer view of her hobby), and when she turns her attentions to Essendine (“I’ve loved you for seven years,” she says), their night together threatens to shatter the familial, if unconventional, circle of friends.
Overacting in life the way he apparently does onstage — when a friend makes just that charge, the actor exaggeratedly replies, “You’ve hurt me, unbearably!” — Essendine is the type of theatrical creation that comes close to guaranteeing the real-life actor playing him a shot at the phrase “tour de force.” Langella takes full advantage, afraid neither to mince nor bellow.
But it’s difficult to say whether he or Elliott is responsible for the production’s missteps. Neither can resist repeating a joke if it gets a laugh the first time around — how many times does Essendine have to check himself in the mirror to establish his vanity? — and when the production struggles for farce it achieves little more than volume.
Nothing makes the failures of the production’s final half so clear as the disrobing of two of Essendine’s suitors, particularly the complete clothes-shedding of young playwright Roland. Whatever we know about Coward’s personal life, we also know that full-frontal nudity and overt sexuality, gay or straight, pretty much shatters the delicate veneer of restraint and suggestion that gave the playwright his voice. And if Elliott (or Langella) really had the strength of his convictions, he’d let the campy, effete Essendine complete (or at least be tempted by) the gay pass. Deconstruction, by any other name, is not a cheap laugh.
Of the other cast members, only Emery, as the harried but loyal secretary, and Janney, as the ex-wife, display the dry sophistication that makes the most of Coward’s lines. Overbey is fine as the starstruck young girl, and Hopper, though misdirected, does as well as can be expected as the amorous playwright. Both Seymour and Elliott make Joanna entirely more unpleasant than she need be — the character should be a seductress, not a monster — and, as a maid, Margaret Sophie Stein is given one visual joke (chain-smoking with a cigarette holder) that is repeated enough to give the audience emphysema.
As Essendine’s two money men, Weiss leaves little impression compared with the flailing of Cale’s Morris, whose British twit is a grotesquery even by Monty Python standards. The twitching and gesticulating seem even more out of place amid Derek McLane’s very proper drawing-room set — a room in which Coward, if not always this production, would be right at home.