Whatever would we do without Kevin Kline? In an age of lesser stars, he’s a bona fide matinee idol of the ideal age and with the urbane sensibility to do justice to sophisticated scribes like Noel Coward. “Present Laughter” is a delicious drawing-room comedy that Coward dashed off in 1942 to amuse himself and his friends, while engaging in a bit of sober self-reflection. Kline relishes the comic challenge in this snazzy production directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel.
To begin with, Kline looks the part of Garry Essendine, an aging but still seductive roué who leaves the ladies weak at the knees. Although never ridiculous, he’s genuinely funny, this handsome, narcissistic baby who’s terrified of being alone but complains loudly at the hordes of visitors who descend on the handsome London townhouse so tastefully designed by David Zinn. However chaotic the manic events unfolding in his living room, he automatically pauses to glance at a mirror before leaving the room — a small but significant staging detail that pays off with a terrific sight gag.
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Keeping to the visuals for a moment, costumer Susan Hilferty has furnished the star with some perfectly lovely dressing gowns and smoking jackets, all very appropriate for an age when dressing gowns and smoking jackets were de rigueur for fashionable men who entertained women after dark. Repaying the compliment, Kline makes a meal out of slipping out of one elegant robe and into another. His timing on this brief comic turn, by the way, is impeccable.
What makes Garry so endearing is that he never questions himself, but accepts the world’s adulation as his due. “Everybody worships me, it’s nauseating,” he says, without irony. The young ones, too. When the show opens, twenty-something Daphne Stillington (Tedra Millan, a looker) is wandering around the living room in a state of dishabille, after spending the night in the spare room better known as the seduction parlor.
For the rest of the play, Garry has to navigate his way through all his visitors — who include his manager, Morris (Reg Rogers), his producer, Henry (Peter Francis James), his ex-wife, Liz (Kate Burton), and current paramour, Joanna (Cobie Smulders), who’s “a lovely creature, but tricky,” according to Liz. Smulders has a graceful, Cowardian air in the role, and makes Susan Hilferty’s costumes look even more fabulous.
Director von Stuelpnagel, who flashed his flair for comedy in “Hand to God,” has assembled a cast of reliable pros who know the drill so well they could pace it out in their sleep. The lesser-skilled younger actors should study the technique of these veterans and bless their lucky stars for the opportunity to do so. Kristine Nielsen, who plays Garry’s secretary, Monica Reed, constitutes a master class. (The drawn-out pauses … the salty line readings … the sly double-takes … the comic cadences — pure heaven!)
The action turns farcical when an ambitious young playwright named Roland Maule (Bhavesh Patel) barges in and refuses to leave until Garry critiques his play. But for a moment, the play also turns semi-serious.
“What you don’t realize is that the theater of the future is the theater of ideas,” this young whippersnapper lectures Garry, after having scolded him for acting in frivolous fluff. “If you wish to be a playwright, go and get yourself a job as a butler in a repertory company,” Garry shoots back. “Learn from the ground up how plays are constructed, what is actable and what isn’t. Then sit down and write at least 20 plays one after the other, and if you can manage to get the 21st produced for a Sunday night performance, you’ll be goddamned lucky.”
Coward has said that “Present Laughter” was the most autobiographical of his plays, so Garry’s advice should be taken at face value. In the same way, Garry’s disarming admissions of frailty — his fear of growing old, of losing his magnetic appeal, of being alone and unwanted — run like a rushing underground river beneath the farcical fun. It seems that Coward, the most successful actor-playwright of his time, was human, after all.