Review: ‘Present Laughter’ at the St. James Theatre

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It doesn’t take much to create a smash Broadway hit. All you need for starters is a  witty script that isn’t in a hurry (not a 90-minute mini-play, but a full-size evening that keeps you interested and amused for almost three hours). Add to the recipe one (or two) bonafide theatre stars. And by stars I mean actors who are blessed with personality, the sort who could literally read a list of phone numbers and keep you entertained. Support him or her with the best of the supporting players available, throw in a pinch of design talent with regard to scenery, lighting and costumes. The subject of the play doesn’t have to be particularly topical, but it must at least reflect something of the state of the world in the time of its creation. That’s what producers Jordan Roth and the Jujamcyn Theatre Organization and their gang of co-producers have done with Noël Coward’s ode to himself, Present Laughter, a vehicle the Master playwright created for himself the Actor in which he enjoyed a huge success. He wrote it in 1939 just before war in Britain began, so it wasn’t presented until 1942, with Coward in the role of Garry Essendine, a light comedy star not unlike himself.  It came to Broadway in 1946 with Clifton Webb in the role and had a healthy run of 158 performances, which in those days certified it as a hit. It’s had numerous revivals in the USA and in Britain, and the current production at the St. James on Broadway is among the very best of them all.

Kevin Kline and Kate Burton in a scene from Present Laughter. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Kevin Kline is the best we have and this is a role he was born to play. The original script called for Essendine to have just turned 40, but his age has varied with that of the actor playing him, and  Mr. Kline’s Garry is now past his  50th birthday. Written in three acts, which was the custom when it was written, it is now in two, but it is still played in four scenes, all of them in Essendine’s London study. He is about to leave on a three-month tour of Africa with a repertoire of six plays, but in the few days he has left to prepare, his life is turned upside down by a dippy ingenue (Tedra Millan) whom he allowed to spend the night in the guest room of his large flat because the night they met she’d lost her latchkey.  She attaches herself to him like a tipsy boa  consciptor and even though he manages to send her on her way, she pops up at the most inconvenient time with her Aunt, Lady Saltburn (Sandra Shipley) who has used her status to get her an audition with the great man. Roland Maule, a very odd would-be playwright has also squeezed through Essendine’s protective secretary Monica Reed, (Kristine Nielsen) and he becomes a leech not easily detached. Garry’s  ex-wife Liz (Kate Burton)  still considers him a friend, and she shows up to warn him of the duplicity of two of his friends. There is the butler Fred (Matt Bittner) and the nurse Miss Erikson (Ellen Harvey) to open doors and empty ashtrays and prepare cocktails, for we are dealing here with the upper classes who were so very popular in many of the drawing room comedies of the so-called Golden Age on Broadway.

Kevin Kline is rarely offstage, and that’s a blessing, for he is such an inventive actor that he makes Coward’s brisk and incisive banter even wittier and more worldly than it is on the printed page, and that’s because his entire face and body serve him to enrich his character.  Kate Burton as his ex-wife and Kristine Nielsen as his secretary are right along with him in batting out the dialog with which they land laugh after laugh. Cobey Smulders (now there’s an original name the playwright might have dreamed up) is Joanna Lyppiatt, wife of Garry’s friend Henry Lyppiatt, (Peter Francis James) and it’s she who makes big trouble by joining the list of those who want something from Garry before he takes off for Africa. It’s great fun to watch and listen to his true friends, secretary Monica and ex-wife Liz plot and plan and manipulate in order to help Garry finally clear the decks for his African tour.

Kristine Nielsen (Monica Reed), Kate Burton (Liz Essendine), and Kevin Kline (Garry Essendine). Photo by Joan Marcus.

David Zinn’s town house set is totally representative of the chaotic rich and varied life led by Garry Essendine. It is filled with artwork and theatrical artifacts which establish his mighty success in the theatre. The ladies are dressed in clothing that tells us much about who they are. Ms. Smulders as the statuesque vamp is slim as a reed, and her magnificent wardrobe defines her as an expensive and formidable foe. Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel is best known for his staging of Hand to God, a devilish comedy which featured a foul-mouthed puppet for over 300 performances on Broadway. With Present Laughter he will certainly continue to rise as a very inventive addition to the not very large community of first-rate directors.

All interested in learning what top notch high comedy acting is all about must visit the St. James Theatre during the limited run of this example of Broadway at its best. I must mention again that the material supplied by Noël Coward is catnip for those who know what to do with it. And these folks do.

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.

Present Laughter is playing at the St. James Theatre – 246 West 44th Street, in New York City. For tickets, visit the box office, call Ticketmaster at 877-250-2929, or purchase them online.

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