Saturday, April 15, 2017

Broadway Review—Kevin Kline in Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter”

Present Laughter
Written by Noel Coward; directed by Moritz Von Stuelpnagel
Opened April 5, 2017
St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street

Cobie Smulders and Kevin Kline in Present Laughter (photo: Joan Marcus)

Kevin Kline in a Noel Coward play is a no-brainer. One of the few American actors who’s a dashing leading man, perfect light comedian and supple physical performer, even at age 69—older by nearly 30 years than the egocentric matinee idol of Coward’s Present Laughter, Garry Essendine—Kline runs rings around performers far younger than he. And so he is the main reason to see this latest revival of one of Coward’s sturdiest comedies.

The charismatic Kline is charming throughout, easily handling Coward’s witty epigraphs and retorts, as a famous theater actor dealing with sundry problems on and offstage, including the many people in his successful orbit: his loyal but harried secretary Monica; his level-headed but harried ex-wife Liz; his trusty but harried valet Fred; his harried Norwegian maid Miss Erikson; his harried closest friends, producer Henry and director Morris; Henry’s young wife Joanna; loony young would-be playwright, Roland; and Daphne, a young starlet who adores him.  

Coward records the comings and goings of these people in Garry’s apartment with simultaneous amusement and bemusement, and if the seams in his elegant drawing-room comedy are starting to show, there’s more than enough good will and funny lines to provide 2-1/2 hours of civilized entertainment. Too bad that Moritz Von Stuelpnagel directs with an unsteady hand, sometimes comically on-point and other times adding needless physical comedy like Roland’s increasingly unfunny handshakes, bringing the play uncomfortably close to door-slamming French farce, which is not what Coward’s comedy is all about.

Still, on David Zinn’s perfectly cluttered set, the cast is generally on-target. Despite mealy-mouthed Reg Rogers (Morris) and crass Bhavesh Patel (Roland), there are accomplished comic turns by wonderful newcomer Tedra Millan (Daphne), remindful of a young Marisa Tomei, and TV’s Cobie Smulders, whose smoldering Joanna looks smashing in Susan Hilferty’s slinky gowns, all while giving as good as she gets.

I’m less enamored with Kate Burton’s Liz, who’s not as sympathetic as she should be, and Kristine Nielsen’s Monica, whose genuinely hilarious moments are undercut by her usual mannerisms. But Kline is so smooth, suave, effortlessly funny and urbane as Garry that he makes this Present Laughter live up to its title. Here’s hoping Kline continues to tackle more of Coward’s canon on Broadway.

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