By Sarah Downs
If you assume that Kevin Kline is perfect for Noel Coward, you assume correctly — and then some. By talent, training and temperament, Kline is a natural. In Present Laughter, he dazzles as the movie idol just a teensy bit past his prime in a delightful satire of “the theatah” in all its narcissistic, whimsical, human glory. With its dance of amorous dalliances and inopportune confession Present Laughter is the best of the best, poking fun at the aging leading man who may face a future of drooping jowls and thinning hair, but damn it he is going down fighting.
Kline plays Garry Essendine, a movie star and cocktail party regular whose late nights and lazy mornings follow an established routine, including the management of his latest conquest. As the curtain rises, his household is tiptoeing through said routine. Essendine eventually emerges to find last night’s chatty young beauty Daphne Stillington is still breakfasting in his spare room, doggedly resisting all efforts to shift her. Cheerful valet Fred and trusty secretary Monica Reed eventually succeed in bustling her out the door as Essendine’s ex-wife Liz arrives. Throughout the afternoon’s meetings, punctuated by the occasional appearance of his lugubrious Swedish housekeeper Miss Erikson, Essendine plays the stoic Misunderstood Artiste. Producer Henry Lyppiatt and agent Morris Dixon come by to discuss the Africa project. A wild-eyed young author Roland Maule, desperate to talk shop with his idol, feigns an introduction. After an exhausting day posturing and thrashing, Essendine gratefully retires, when his peace is intruded upon yet again by the arrival of his producer’s wife Joanna Lyppiatt who needs a bed for the night, and we’re back where we started. Oh the life of the reluctant (not reluctant) Lothario.
A cast of exceptional actors keeps this farce moving with buoyant focus and attention to detail. Tedra Millan as the impressionable, infatuated Daphne is adorable. Even as Essendine’s secretary Monica wrangles her out the door, she holds on to the vision of her Great Love. As Monica, Kristine Nielsen possesses the warmth and humor to foil her employer, delivering snarky one-liners even as she endeavors to protect Essendine from himself. Cobie Smulders, making her entrance in a to-die-for bias-cut satin gown is very much the leading lady. As Joanna, she is both funny and elegant, as is Peter Francis James as her dashing husband Henry. Kate Burton, the patiently sardonic ex-wife is classic 1940’s, lobbing great one liners as she subtly manages the action. In his somewhat manic interpretation of the passionate, sycophantic author Roland, Bhavesh Patel takes us to a new level of crazy. Reg Rogers as Morris vies with Kline in energy in an increasingly broad portrayal of a man being driven witless by love. As the spiritualism-obsessed Swedish housekeeper, cigarette perennially dangling from her lips, Ellen Harvey steals scenes right and left, while Fred, played by Matt Bittner, quick-steps efficiently through his duties. He is the layman’s answer to the illusory detachment Essendine maintains in his sanctuary.
However, it is Kline who anchors the production, in a performance of exceptional clarity that wears the heavy mantle of light comedy with ease. He is charming, intelligent and irritatingly handsome. He has rooted Essendine in truth, freeing himself to roam about through every contortion and vocal color that strikes his fancy, to the extent that Kline’s performance feels totally improvised.
The set is a visual feast of floor-to-ceiling books and overlapping modern art. Remarkably, set designer David Zinn has layered the walls without making the space feel claustrophobic. Justin Townsend’s lighting complements the design perfectly, eliding the varied spheres of Essendine’s life from the bright lights of his living room ‘stage’ to the warm glow of home alone, when the Ak-tor is just the actor. Susan Hilferty’s gorgeous costumes are exquisite, defining each character instantly, in conjunction with Josh Marquette’s spot-on period hair styles. When Sandra Shipley as Lady Saltburn breezes onto the scene in Act II, all charm and plummy tones, the perfect cut of her lavender coat dress and coiffure say it all. Big band tunes, aptly curated by sound designer Fitz Patton serenade us during scene changes, extending the mood.
Farce is not for the faint of heart; one is tempted to push too far. There is no danger of that here. Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel has deftly guided the action without imprisoning his actors. Of course, he has been handed a gift in Kevin Kline, who with his prodigious talent and experience carries a show that sparkles. Don’t miss it.
Present Laughter, by Noël Coward, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel; starring Kevin Kline, Kate Burton, Kristine Nielsen, and Cobie Smulders, Bhavesh Patel, Matt Bittner, Ellen Harvey, Peter Francis James, Tedra Millan and Sandra Shipley; sets by David Zinn, costumes by Susan Hilferty, lighting design by Justin Townsend, sound design by Fitz Patton, and hair design by Josh Marquette.
Limited engagement through July 2, 2017; evenings Tuesday through Saturday; matinees Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Run time approx. 2 1/2 hours with one intermission. See www.laughteronbroadway.com for details.