After a decade’s absence from Broadway, Kevin Kline returns as the aging matinee idol in Present Laughter. Kline, the swashbuckler of Pirates of Penzance and the hunk of On The Twentieth Century, would be welcome back in almost any theatrical vehicle. Yet this sixth Broadway production of Noël Coward’s 1939 comedy doesn’t add up to any special kind of thrill ride.
Yes, Kline’s fans are unlikely to feel disappointed by his latest star turn, portraying a self-dramatizing character (which Coward largely modeled after himself) with enough ham to be funny and enough nuance to feel credible. Yes, Kline is surrounded by some terrific pros. Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel, who made a splash with Hand to God, adds some mischievous comic business. David Zinn, the set designer of The Humans and Fun Home, has created an exquisitely inviting, richly detailed London flat. The supporting cast includes such delectable pros as Kate Burton as Kline’s estranged wife and Kristine Nielsen as his snappy secretary. Yet all that talent goes into a show that registers as little more than a mild diversion, and a somewhat musty one.
Kline is Garry Essandine, a star who owns 18 fancy dressing gowns and everything else he could want, but likes to complain about it all. His Scandinavian housekeeper doesn’t cook as well as a French chef would, his valet keeps on saying “Rightyo” rather than “Very good, sir” and his private secretary makes cracks at his expense. Worst of all are the young debutantes who throw themselves at him. “Everybody worships me,” he says. “it’s nauseating.”
Present Laughter brings us into Garry’s world in the weeks leading up to a tour he is about to take of Africa. We are introduced to Daphne, a young woman Garry has never met before who used the excuse of forgetting her key to spend the previous night at his flat. Later, we meet Joanna, who uses the same excuse, but she is well-known to him – she is his producer’s wife and his manager’s mistress. These two discreetly staged couplings and their complications drive much of the plot and lots of the comedy – people are escorted into side rooms; awkwardly polite confrontations ensue.
The goings-on are not frantic enough to be a full-out farce; not blunt enough to scandalize anybody in 2017; not funny or pointed enough to explain why the producers would bring back this play just seven years after its last Broadway revival, which starred Victor Garber.
In an essay written in 2007, James Grieve makes the claim that Present Laughter is not just a witty comedy but a moral one, exploring “predatory sexual betrayal.” It was written “at a time of enormous political and social upheaval” and so “even though [Coward] is depicting a class that is feckless and selfish and greedy and irresponsible, he also manages to make us fear for them because they are desperate and frightened, with no emotional or financial security.”
I didn’t get this. The most substantive moment I caught on the stage of the St. James Theatre was ironically a discussion about frivolity in the theater. A young would-be playwright, Roland Maule (portrayed by Bhavesh Patel), sneaks his way into Garry’s flat. The most memorable thing about him – indeed, one of the most memorable aspects of the production as a whole (for better or worse) – is that he shakes everybody’s hands so firmly that they cry out in pain, and come up with funny ways to avoid shaking his hand when they meet again. Like everybody else, Roland idolizes Garry, but he also criticizes him for what he does on stage: “What you don’t realize is that the theatre of the future is the theatre of ideas,” Roland says.
“That may be,” Garry replies, “but at the moment I am occupied with the theatre of the present.” But that present, at least as offered at the St. James, seems to have passed.
Present Laughter is on stage at the St. James Theatre (246 W 44th St, between 7th and 8th Avenue, New York, NY 10036) through July 2, 2017
Tickets and details
Present Laughter by Noël Coward . Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel; Assistant Director: Annie Tippe . Scenic Design by David Zinn; Costume Design by Susan Hilferty; Lighting Design by Justin Townsend; Sound Design by Fitz Patton; Hair Design by Josh Marquette. Featuring Kevin Kline as Garry Essendine, Kate Burton as Liz Essendine, Kristine Nielsen as Monica Reed, Cobie Smulders as Joanna Lyppiatt, Matt Bittner as Fred, Ellen Harvey as Miss Erikson, Peter Francis James as Henry Lyppiatt, Tedra Millan as Daphne Stillington, Bhavesh Patel as Roland Maule, Reg Rogers as Morris Dixon, Sandra Shipley as Lady Saltburn. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.