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PBS has telecast dozens of plays and musicals on its “Great Performances” anthology series since the long-running program made its debut in 1972. Now the network is endeavoring to lift spirits crushed by the coronavirus pandemic by pulling some of those fondly remembered performances off the shelf and rebroadcasting them on Fridays on TV, and for a limited time via free streaming video. This week’s offering is a bedazzling gem, a live performance of the 2016 Broadway revival of “Present Laughter,” Noël Coward’s best play, starring Kevin Kline. Rarely have I laughed so hard as I did when I saw it on stage four years ago, and I am very happy to report that it comes across on the small screen with near-identical comic vitality….
“Present Laughter” cannot be made to take flight without an actor oozing with star quality sufficient to take on the showy leading role that Coward originally wrote for himself and which has since been essayed on Broadway by Clifton Webb, George C. Scott and Frank Langella, a list that gives you a pretty clear idea of what an actor needs to come up to scratch as Garry Essendine, Coward’s barely fictionalized alter ego. The brilliance of Mr. Kline’s performance lies in the fact that he plays Essendine not as a grossly inflated caricature but for truth, which—of course—makes him even funnier…..
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The trailer for Present Laughter: