“If at First You Don’t Succeed”
Noël Coward’s Present Laughter, now being given a moderately fizzy revival starring a smashing Kevin Kline at the St. James Theatre, has so successfully overcome its initial rejection on Broadway that it’s had five revivals there within a span of 60 years. Written in 1939, but not produced in England until 1942, where it was a hit, it didn’t make it across the pond until after the war ended, opening at the Plymouth Theatre in October 1946.
|Kevin Kline. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
If the excitement expressed by many critics over its latest incarnation is any indication, local opinion makers have had far more positive reactions to the play than those of their 1946 forebears, when most found the play strained, tiresome, and dull. One, Arthur Pollock, of the Brooklyn Eagle, in fact, called it “palpably contrived, slow, and entertaining only by jerks,” while John Beaufort, of the Christian Science Monitor, said it was “tedious, tasteless, and rather old hat.” Neither of these descriptions could be applied to the current revival, which is anything but slow or tedious,
|Kristine Nielsen, Kate Burton, Kevin Kline. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Still, the production wouldn’t behalf as enjoyable were it not for Kline’s exceptional charm in the leading role of vainglorious actor Garry Essendine, originally played by Coward, who wrote it for himself as “a bravura part.” Garry has served as a magnificent vehicle for the light comedy/farce skills of many leading men on the West End and Broadway, the latter’s pre-Kline clan comprising Clifton Webb (1946), Coward (briefly, in 1958), George C. Scott (1982), Frank Langella (1997), and Victor Garber (2010).
Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s pedal-to-the-metal production, which conflates Coward’s three acts to two, surrounds Kline, a nominee for multiple awards, with (mostly) sterling support. The laughs, though, aren’t as frequent as one might expect, and, too often, they come not so much (or just as much) from Coward’s dialogue or situations as from Stuelpnagel’s staging or from the clownish behavior of the show’s more gifted comic performers. Anyone who’s ever seen the hilarious Kristine Nielsen, for instance, won’t be surprised at how deftly she can get a laugh from a line or piece of business by popping open and rolling her eyes, and maybe throwing up her hands, almost as if to say, “Are these people for real?”
While the play generally skims along as a superficial comedy of manners sprinkled with autobiographical references for cognoscenti of Coward’s life and works, it also has some wonderfully human and artistic insights. Theatre folk will prick up their ears when Garry sharply critiques a wild young playwright: “To begin with, your play is not a play at all. It’s a meaningless jumble of adolescent, pseudo intellectual poppycock. It bears no relation to the theatre or to life or to anything. . . . If you wish to be a playwright you must leave the theatre of tomorrow to take care of itself,” etc.
|Kevin Kline, Kate Burton. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Kline, as slender as he was forty years ago, and wearing one stylish dressing gown after the other as if to the manner born (but why no Cowardian cigarette holder?), brings all his theatrical grace, finesse, comic timing, and human insight to Garry, a pampered, narcissistic London matinee idol contemplating a repertory trip to Africa. This is a man who can’t stop acting, for whom life is as much a stage as the one where he earns his livelihood. Kline squeezes every moment possible for chances to display Garry’s vanity, especially in a running bit with a mirror. (For another splendid actor’s take on a similar character, see Bill Nighy in the recent film, Their Finest.)
Garry was originally written as 42 but, as older and older actors have assumed the role, his age has crept upward; for the 69-year-old Kline, the climb has stopped at 57, which he definitely gets away with, allowing us to laugh without too much derision whenever he tries to pass himself off as in his mid-40s.
|Kate Burton, Kevin Kline. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Garry is sought after and sponged on by various fawning femmes and sycophants, including his estranged but still hovering, cool-headed wife Liz (Kate Burton, superbly grounded), his cynically sharp-eyed secretary Monica (Nielsen), the worshipful and eccentric young playwright Roland Maule (Bhavesh Patel, who deserves a Tony for overacting), Garry’s director Morris (Reg Rogers) and moneyman Henry (Peter Francis James). The knowing Liz, who wants to renew her marital relationship with Garry, is useful in disentangling his frequent amours.
A spare bedroom plays a big role when the action demands that various women be secretly spirited away to save them and Garry from embarrassment. One such person is the young, would-be actress Daphne Stillington (Tedra Millan, annoyingly chirpy in her Broadway debut, playing a role portrayed by Kate Burton, making hers, in the 1982 revival); another is Henry’s glamorous wife, Joanna (Cobie Smulders, strikingly elegant and delightfully sophisticated in her Broadway debut), involved in an affair with Morris, and who, during the action, does her seductive work on Garry. In Act Two a tower of complications is erected before it collapses and Garry returns to Liz’s open arms.
The first act is mostly concerned with introducing the characters, providing exposition, and setting us up for Act Two’s comic confusions, during which someone even says it’s like being in a French farce. Even before doors rapidly open and close and doorbells commence ringing in rapid succession, the already colorful characters—did I mention Miss Erikson (Ellen Harvey), the straight-faced Scandinavian maid with the dangling cigarette, or the busy beaver butler Fred (Matt Bittner)?—are occasionally pushed to cartoonish extremes in arduous grabs for the gold ring of laughter. Only when master light comedians like Kline, Nielsen, Burton, and Smulders do their thing are we able to believe these people as real, regardless of how overstated they sometimes have to be.
Performed in an elaborately detailed duplex drawing room designed by David Zinn, beautifully lit by Justin Townsend, and stunningly costumed by Susan Hilferty (who’s also received multiple nominations), Present Laughter, like The Little Foxes, written the same year, and competing with it for a Best Revival Tony, is a wonderful reminder of what mid-20th-century Broadway audiences attended back in the day. It’s got nothing on The Little Foxes as a play, but as a vehicle for an actor like Kevin Kline, it’s worth every penny of your Broadway dollars.
St. James Theatre
246 W. 44th St., NYC
Through July 2