In today’s Wall Street Journal I review the new Broadway revival of Present Laughter. Here’s an excerpt.
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“Present Laughter” is Noël Coward’s funniest and most perfectly wrought comedy, give or take “Blithe Spirit.” But unlike “Blithe Spirit,” which all but plays itself, “Present Laughter” won’t come off unless the central character, a monstrously vain actor-playwright-celebrity who behaves in a manner all but indistinguishable from that of Coward himself, is portrayed by an actor who oozes star quality from every orifice and is also naturally funny. Until now, only four men had dared to play Garry Essendine, Coward’s fictional alter ego, on Broadway: Clifton Webb, George C. Scott, Frank Langella and Victor Garber, the last of whom wasn’t quite up to scratch in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s 2010 production. Now their ranks have been augmented by Kevin Kline, who last set foot on a Broadway stage a decade ago, when he donned a false nose and appeared in “Cyrano de Bergerac.” You’d think he’d be rusty, but you’d be dead wrong. Not only is Mr. Kline’s performance a triumph, but this revival, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, is the best staging of a Coward play—any Coward play—that I’ve ever seen.
If you know “Soapdish,” the 1991 screen comedy in which Mr. Kline played a pompous soap-opera hero, you’ll have a fairly good idea of how he’s playing Essendine, who’s never seen a mirror he didn’t like, a friend he didn’t try to manipulate or a woman he didn’t try to bed….
It’s a dream part for the famously funny Mr. Kline, but there’s a catch: He’s 69 years old, whereas Garry Essendine has only just turned 40 (as had Coward when he wrote the play in 1939). You can fiddle with the text of “Present Laughter” all you want in order to obscure Essendine’s actual age, but you can’t escape the oft-mentioned fact that he’s a matinée idol who is irresistibly attractive to fans of both sexes.
How have Messrs. Kline and Stuelpnagel dealt with this problem? By confronting it head on. In addition to streaking Mr. Kline’s hair with gray, Mr. Steuplnagel makes him claim at various points in the play to be 45, 43, 47 and (best of all) 57. Moreover, Mr. Kline plays Essendine as an older man, one who is still vital but nonetheless uncomfortably aware that it’s absurd to the point of pitifulness for him to be carrying on with an air-headed 24-year-old wannabe actress (Tedra Millan). Therein lies the originality of performance and production alike: Essendine is played for truth, not as a caricature, which simultaneously makes him more interesting and—yes—even funnier….
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Read the whole thing here.
Noël Coward and Margaret Leighton play a scene from Present Laughter in a 1956 audio recording: