Manners, movement and good millinery are all essential for the playing of Noel Coward, but the real secret is breath control. Having helmed “Private Lives” to Olivier and Tony award-winning effect, Howard Davies knows better than most that posing without proper vocal prowess would be deadly. So he has shored up his National Theater revival of “Present Laughter” not only with suitable hats and hauteur but a pair of master technicians. Although not all the cast members are up to their sublime level, the frankly glorious Alex Jennings and Sarah Woodward sweep aside doubts about the play.
Unlike the earlier “Private Lives,” a perfectly formed masterpiece of love and pain disguised as an exquisite squabble, the more self-regarding “Present Laughter” has structural problems. Coward’s comedy rises out of the complicated intrigues and internecine affairs of a group of lovers and friends all buzzing around “the world’s most famous romantic comedian”: Matinee idol Garry Essendine (Jennings).
Although the mirroring of events in the four scenes shows the repetitive nature of these shenanigans, Coward’s lack of distance from his material — Garry is essentially a heterosexualized self-portrait played originally by the playwright — caused him to let the wind out of his own sails. Events spiral into farce but Coward resolves his plot and then attempts to crank up the tension all over again with limited success.
The already labored final scene is put under further strain when the full text is used, as it is here. Davies’ addition of Garry alone listening to a gramophone adds to the possibly sacrilegious thought that a little pruning might not go amiss.
In a role he was born to play, Jennings makes ease look, well, easy. Despite peacocking about in a series of dressing gowns, Jennings never confuses charm and smarm; he sweeps about the stage like a cross between Rex Harrison and a well-bred wolf.
Exaggeration isn’t Garry’s mode of expression, it’s his way of life. Leaping on top of the grand to observe himself in one of the full length mirrors lining Tim Hatley’s boldly turquoise, sharply angled set, he cries “Oh God, I look 98.” In fact, he’s bordering on 42. Jennings, however, reveals both Garry’s boyish bravado and, in the nighttime seduction scene, the mature intelligence usually hidden beneath his entertaining bombast.
Jennings’ timing is so flawless he even finds space to stretch punctuation to delicious comic effect. Attempting to extricate himself from last night’s love-struck ingenue, he trots out the line, “Don’t love me too much, Daphne.” But he halts momentarily on the comma to search for her name, indicating just how common an occurrence this is.
Jennings is matched by Woodward’s immaculate, bone-dry performance as Monica, Garry’s stoic secretary. Brisk without being chilly, she forever hints at but never overstates Monica’s ever so slightly wicked manner. Woodward can pluck laughs out of the ether and the relationship the actress evokes with Jennings is the most truthful in the play.
As Garry’s lingering ex-wife Liz, Sara Stewart has a great line in crisp disdain. A gleam permanently in her eye, she puts the lid on arguments with whiplash body language. Tim McMullan is sweetly baffled as Garry’s manager, only latterly aware he’s being bamboozled by the machinations of his lover Joanna.
Slinking about in figure-hugging crimson velvet and a fur stole she knows exactly what to do with, Lisa Dillon’s Joanna grows in defiance. Yet even she cannot square the fact that Coward paints her as refreshingly honest, but then unfairly pulls the rug out from beneath the character.
Coward always had a genius for names and the most surprising performance is that of Pip Carter as the would-be “modern” playwright Roland Maule. Carter adroitly shift his infatuation from Garry away from appearing gay. Instead he is unswervingly and unnervingly mad, with a terrific running gag of a vise-like handshake.
Others in the company are considerably less skilled at this vivacious — and vicious — game-playing. Characters are both over- and underplayed. But at its best, the dash and depth of the leading performances keep Coward’s fencing match magnificently alive.