Reviewed by James Karas
Present Laughter is a hilarious play and one of Noe Coward’s best comedies. It opened in 1942 with Coward himself in the leading role. The play, about a supremely successful and egocentric actor entering middle age is in many ways a portrait or perhaps a parody of Coward himself. It has been revived numerous times including the 2017 Broadway production that PBS telecast on July 31, 2020 to entertain us during the pandemic.
It is a very successful production with Kevin Kline as the flamboyant Garry Essendine and a superb cast directed by David Horn at the St. James Theater in New York.
Horn seems to know every technique for generating laughter and energy in a play. Outstanding delivery of lines is just the beginning. Timing, perfect pauses, doubletakes, flawless reaction to the lines of other characters are all used to produce hilarity and joy.
Essendine is so famous and attractive that he is pursued by women. He acts, overacts, is bombastic, narcissistic, sarcastic, rude and hilarious. Kevin Kline is outstanding in the role. His timing is impeccable, his rhetorical outbursts a delight, his overacting is splendid. Essendine’s satellites try to bring him down to earth but he is on his own planet and he is always acting. That is his essence.
His coterie of friends provides terrific foils for his humour. His estranged wife Liz (a classy Liz Burton) is comparatively down to earth with a wicked sense of humour who knows Garry better than anyone else. Henry (Peter Francis James) is married to the predatory Joanna (a very sexy Cobie Smulders) while he is having an affair with another woman. In the meantime Joanna is being bedded by Morris (Reg Rogers.).
That is just the beginning. Ditzy Daphne (Tedra Millan) forgets her latchkey and ends up in Garry’s apartment proclaiming eternal love for him. Joanna uses the same trick and manages to seduce Garry.
Essendine has 3 people working for him in his posh London apartment and Coward has made sure that they are at least amusing. There is his secretary, the acid-tongued and realistic Monica (Kristine Nielsen) who tries to keep his life in order, the maid Miss Erikson (Ellen Harvey), a Scandinavian spiritualist with a cigarette hanging from her lower lip. It is a minor role, but Harvey gets the laughs. Matt Bittner as the butler Fred runs in and out mostly but he does get a scene to tell us about his amorality.
Coward adds a visit by a psychotic would-be playwright named Roland Maule (Bhavesh Patel) whose handshake can separate your arm from your body. He is nuts but he is also funny.
These characters and the whole world in fact turn around Garry Essendine, his ego, his anxieties, his narcissism, his angst about hitting middle age and the preparation for a tour of South Africa. The comedy builds up as his world appears to unravel in his mind at least and he escapes in Cowardly fashion by running off with his wife and leaving everyone behind.
The ensemble acting with outstanding reactions and timing is superb. Individually the cast deserves unalloyed kudos. Kline is on stage most of the time and dominates the production and gets the most credit for the fun.
David Horn’s directing is meticulous, imaginative and simply fantastic.
Present Laughter by Noel Coward played at the St. James Theatre, New York in 2017 and was shown on television on July 31, 2020 on PBS