When Kevin Kline walks onstage, he uses his bathrobe to swat at nothing before histrionically grabbing the bannister of his staircase like a walker. In fact, he spends much of Present Laughter moving from pose to pose; his fingers, like tentacles, have a life of their own, often revolving in various directions, as if restlessly waiting to saw the air for emphasis. Indeed, Noël Coward is such a seamless fit for Mr. Kline’s talents that it is a wonder this is the first time he is playing the author on a Broadway stage.
The play itself concerns Garry Essendine (Mr. Kline), a preening, narcissistic over-actor who is preparing for a tour of Africa. Garry begins the play nearing forty, but by its end he admits he’s closer to sixty. Still, this is apparently young enough to warrant unceasing attention from obsessed fans (Tedra Millan and Bhavesh Patel) and the wife of his business partner (Colbie Smulders). His own wife (Kate Burton) left him years ago, but she remains, along with his secretary (Kristine Nielsen), as an intermediary between Garry and the rest of the world. Like Wodehouse’s Wooster, Garry finds himself much put upon by a series of events that are ultimately rather trivial.
Though Present Laughter is mostly a vehicle for Mr. Kline, his co-stars hold their own. I was particularly impressed with Ms. Millan, whose squeaky, ever-eager fan-girl demeanor plays nicely against Garry’s exasperation; her ear-to-ear smile is so ubiquitous that her eyes never open wider than a squint.
Coward has remained a staple of community theater for decades, and yet he seems to have fallen out of favor with professional companies. For the life of me, I cannot see why, and Present Laughter serves as a delightful rebuke to this trend, proving that there’s always more room for madcap farce on the Great White Way.
Present Laughter runs through January 1st at the St. James Theatre. 246 W. 44th Street New York, NY. 2 hours 30 minutes. One intermission.