One of the high-water marks of the current Broadway season is having the multi-talented Kevin Kline back on stage. His presence in a New York production is a reason to cheer and his performance in the otherwise pedestrian Noel Coward drawing room comedy, Present Laughter, is full of hilarious delectation.
Kline plays Garry Essendine, an ego-centric, somewhat over-the-hill actor and lothario. He questions his relevance and abilities, to anyone who will listen, on the eve of a tour of the African continent. He seduces and fends off women, parries and thrusts with an assortment of friends and hanger-ons and, inadvertently, plants himself within a love triangle among his friends. His open-minded and tolerant wife, the wise-cracking maid and butler, along with his harried secretary, try to keep him in line while placating his moody disposition.
No one portrays the high-minded English class better than Noel Coward. In his most successful plays, such as Blithe Spirit and Private Lives, the exalted language and upper crust characters mesh perfectly with an engaging and refreshing premise. With Present Laughter, the plot is prosaic and inhabited by just a handful of compelling characters. Without a magnetic and appealing lead the show would hardly be cause for a Broadway revival.
Kline fits the bill as a captivating and charismatic star. His clownish and waggish talents, along with his nuanced approach elevate the production whether he is playing the roguish womanizer or a refined country gentleman. His physical comedic skills have not diminished over time and have, in fact, improved by becoming more subtle and refined. The other members of the cast do an admirable job supporting the star. The women in the play shine the most. They include Kate Burton as his businesslike, forgiving wife, Liz Essendine; Kristine Nielsen as the long-time, disconcerted secretary Monica Reed; and Cobie Smulders as the smoldering, self-possessed femme fatale, Joanna Lyppiatt.
Director Moritz Von Stuelpnagel lets the action unfold in an easy, matter-of-fact style. He adroitly utilizes the many doorways onto the stage in a subtle, but effective farcical manner. The scenes with Kevin Kline and the female members of the cast resonate with zing and sparkle but, besides these moments, the director has a difficult time churning up a sustained gaiety and sprightliness to the production.
David Zinn’s Set Design perfectly replicates a very lived-in parlor of a country manor. It is suitably busy, full of floor to ceiling bookshelves, and eclectic bric a brac and assorted showpieces one would collect over many years.
Present Laughter, a breezy, charming comedy with an outstanding performance by Kevin Kline.