I have long admired the acting talent of Kevin Kline, whether on stage or screen, and it is a great pleasure to report that he is bringing it all together for a fabulously entertaining performance in a revival of Noël Coward’s astute comedy “Present Laughter.” It is as if Kline were born to play the complex part of vain actor Garry Essendine, a satirical portrait that was Coward’s vehicle for spoofing himself and a character he played when “Present Laughter” burst upon the London theater scene in 1942.
Kline is consistently a delight to watch, whether deftly engaging in physical comedy, egotistically posturing with dramatic flourishes of excess, fighting off unwelcome intrusions in his life, engaging in sexual escapades, succumbing to flattery or finally giving in to the possibility of a genuine reunion with his not-so-estranged wife.
Through it all Kline is a master of comic and dramatic sophistication that exactly fits the tone of Coward’s best writing. That tone is achieved—with one exception—by the direction of Moritz von Stuelpnagel and the contributions of other starring cast members.
Give due credit to David Zinn, whose set design immediately grabs us when we see the London apartment in which Garry reigns. Costume designer Susan Hilferty has also contributed importantly to the play’s elegance. The white dressing gown alone that Garry receives as a gift and promptly wears affords a visual coup, apart from what she has smartly designed for the women in his life.
Kate Burton is outstanding as Garry’s tough-edged, still-friendly but estranged wife Liz, who knows him like a book and stands guard over his life and other relationships. Burton provides laughs with some of Coward’s acerbic lines and revelations. Kristine Nielsen makes the most of her colorful role as Garry’s long time secretary and assistant Monica, who has to contend with Garry’s romantic surprises as well as managing his schedule.
Tedra Millan is effervescently perfect as the young, persistently adoring Daphne, who spends the night as the object of Garry’s impulsive charm, but who finds herself rejected in high style in the morning. Cobie Smulders as Joanna is chic and super-persistent in confessing her love for Garry against the background of her marriage and an extra-marital affair.
Confessions and exposure abound, ensnaring two key men, Henry and Morris, perfectly played respectively by Peter Francis James and Reg Rogers. Ellen Harvey has scene-stealing moments as the cigarette-smoking Swedish housekeeper, Miss Erikson, and Matt Bittner crisply plays Fred, the butler, who smoothly goes about his duties amid the household mayhem.
There is one problematical character in the play that I wish Coward had dropped from the mix. He is that of Roland Maule, in this instance played with obnoxious intensity by Bhavesh Patel. Roland is a would-be playwright and an interloper, professing impulsive fandom for Garry--an annoying invader whom Garry keeps trying to shunt aside. Maule has an excessively vigorous handshake, which becomes a silly running gag.
I can’t see any purpose in the character, who only adds insignificantly to the onslaught against Garry’s privacy and equilibrium. Coward would have been well advised to cut the character, as when played for slapstick, as it is here and has been in the past, the bit runs totally counter to the otherwise comic sophistication of the play. Enough said.
But that caveat is a blip on what emerges as a wonderfully entertaining production, with impeccable casting and resulting fine acting, led, of course, by the triumph of Kevin Kline, who merits nominations and awards and lights up what emerges as one of the most enjoyable plays, revival or original, of the season. At the St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street. Phone: 877-250-2929. Reviewed April 9, 2017.