Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Pretty Funny

Present Laughter

Starring Victor Garber, Harriet Harris, Brooks Ashmanskas, Lisa Banes, Nancy E. Carroll, Alice Duffy, Holley Fain, Pamela Jane Gray, James Joseph O'Neil, Richard Poe, Marc Vietor

Performances January 2-March 21, 2010

American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street


Noel Coward’s indestructible Present Laughter returns in a new Roundabout production; if director Nicholas Martin does nothing egregiously wrong, neither does he get big laughs, even during the play’s comic high points. Coward’s hilarious farce about Garry Essendine, a conceited, over-the-hill stage star whose African tour plans are upset by sycophants, hangers-on, an estranged wife and a loyal secretary, was originally written for himself to play (George C. Scott and Frank Langella played Garry more recently).

Martin has cast Victor Garber, an accomplished stage actor (Lend Me a Tenor, Damn Yankees, Art), as Garry. Garber works hard, has a good British accent and hits the comic and faux-tragic notes, but has little of the leading-man persona necessary for Garry. His bearing apes Coward’s without Coward’s effortlessness: indeed, the sweat always shows on Garber’s brow.

The competent supporting cast is led by Harriet Harris (Garry’s tart secretary Monica), whose zingers fly like mad. Lisa Banes decently plays Garry’s not-quite-ex Liz, Holley Fain is a perky ingĂ©nue Daphne, James Joseph O’Neil has an amusing turn as valet Fred and Nancy E. Carroll is droll as the housekeeper, Miss Erickson.

Richard Poe makes a nicely-shaded Henry, the harried producer whose wife Joanna fools around with Garry’s manager Morris (a too-obvious Marc Vietor), then Garry himself. It’s too bad Joanna is played shrilly by Pamela Jane Gray, but the nadir is Brooks Ashmanskas, whose Roland Maule—a novice playwright who won’t accept Garry’s “no”—comes from a campy show like The Ritz, which Ashmanskas also was in. The actor jumps around, doing pirouettes that’d make Baryshnikov envious, to no discernible end. Why Martin let this capable comic actor run afoul is baffling: whenever Roland appears, Present Laughter becomes unpleasant and no laughing matter.

The production’s gorgeous trappings begin with Alexander Dodge’s eye-popping set, which deserves the audience’s usually annoying applause when it’s first seen. While too ostentatious for a London theater actor, it’s a wild marriage of gaudy art-deco touches, burnished wood paneling, sparkling chandeliers, a fantastic spiral staircase and a painting of the younger Garry. Jane Greenwood’s colorful costumes and Rui Rita’s lively lighting also fill the bill.

Coward’s comedy still provides laughs, yet, however enjoyable it is at present, Present Laughter can be far more devastatingly funny.
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