More from the road: I review the Huntington Theater Company’s production of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter and American Repertory Theatre’s production of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land in this week’s Wall Street Journal theater column. The first is a somewhat mixed but basically good bag, the second a 100% winner:
Noël Coward never wrote a funnier play than “Present Laughter.” So why does everybody do “Private Lives” instead? Because “Present Laughter” requires a cast of 11, an extremely fancy set, and an actor of the highest possible candlepower to play the showy star part that Coward wrote for himself. Only three other men have played Garry Essendine, the author’s alter ego, on Broadway: Frank Langella, George C. Scott and Clifton Webb. Now Victor Garber is trying his hand at the role in a new production directed by Nicholas Martin for the Huntington Theatre Company, and Variety says that it “could have a future commercial life, depending on the availability of its star.”
That means Broadway, where few straight plays can hope to be revived without the added luster of a Hollywood name. Mr. Garber, an old Broadway hand who spent the past five years playing opposite Jennifer Garner on ABC’s “Alias,” definitely fills the bill–but can he also fill the size-100 shoes of his predecessors? I’m not so sure, nor am I convinced that this production is quite ready for prime time.
The best thing about any production of “Present Laughter” is, of course, the play itself, a three-act farce that purports to show us the backstage life of an aging but still irresistible matinée idol. Garry Essendine resembles Coward in every way but one, which is that he (usually) prefers girls. Otherwise he is, as Coward acknowledged in later life, a self-portrait of the artist as monstre sacre…
Mr. Garber looks more like an exasperated uncle than a matinée idol, and for all the wit and precision of his performance, he isn’t glamorous enough to be the Garry Essendine of anyone’s dreams….
Across the river in Cambridge, the American Repertory Theatre is presenting the latest in a long and distinguished series of Harold Pinter revivals directed by David Wheeler. “No Man’s Land” has been seen twice on Broadway, with John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson and with Christopher Plummer and Jason Robards, and it is the highest possible tribute to Max Wright and Paul Benedict that their eloquent acting doesn’t make you long to step into the Wayback Machine and set the controls for 1976 or 1994….
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