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Theatre in Review: Present Laughter (St. James Theatre)

Cobie Smulders, Kevin Kline. Photo: Joan Marcus

"I'm always acting!" So says Garry Essendine, matinee idol, ladies' man, and the eye of his own emotional hurricane in Present Laughter. In his titanic self-regard and withering way with words, the hero of NoŽl Coward's 1939 comedy is rather like, well, NoŽl Coward; he first played the role, and it requires no less brilliant a technician than the Master himself. Fortunately, some theatrical sage had the bright idea of casting Kevin Kline, a decision goes a long way toward explaining the holiday mood currently prevailing at the St. James.

In 1978, Kline appeared in this theatre in On the Twentieth Century, dazzling audiences with his limber physical comedy expertise -- greeted by Madeline Kahn in a satin peignoir, he appeared to bounce off every available surface of the set -- and it is a pleasure to report that his skills are as sharp as ever. Staggering out of his bedroom in a deep morning fog, he pauses on the second-floor landing, teetering perilously against the balustrade, only to pull himself back from the brink in the nick of time. Informed by his latest flirtation that she is only twenty-four, he sinks onto a hassock in defeat, a hot-air balloon being grounded and deflated. Opening a gift box containing yet another luxurious dressing gown, he leaps back in astonished pleasure, as if struck by a divine apparition. Emerging from the kitchen to a roomful of furies, he executes a panicked pas de deux with the swinging door, then glides surreptitiously onto the piano bench, bravely maintaining an air of nonchalance.

Remarkably, each of these bits of business, and so many others, are executed with seeming effortlessness. "Complete naturalness on the stage is my strong suit," says Garry at one point, and, as delivered by Kline, these words never rang truer. The role is an actor's tightrope, demanding such elegant bits of foolery without going overboard; I've seen Present Laughter slip into vulgar slapstick, but Kline, aided by his deft director, Moritz Von Stuelpnagel, brings to life Garry's egocentric, borderline-hysteric nature with equal parts hilarity and dexterity. And he is perfectly at home with Coward's acid wit. Peering into one of the many mirrors that adorn David Zinn's set, he cries out in despair, "In a few years I shall be as bald as a coot, with rows of angry false teeth leering at me from a tumbler." (Garry admits, at various times, to being forty-five, forty-seven, and fifty-seven.) Fending off a young lass who has stayed the night, having lost her latchkey -- the women in Garry's life are always losing their latchkeys -- he sweeps aside any pretense at romance, upbraiding her with, "You must get out of the habit of contradicting everything I say." Denouncing a stage colleague with a flourish, he announces, "In addition to her extreme competence, she has contrived, with uncanny skill, to sustain a spotless reputation for being the most paralyzing, monumental, world-shattering, God-awful bore that ever drew breath." Kline may be the nimblest, most sophisticated comedian the American theatre has to offer, and the role of Garry fits him like one of his superbly tailored dressing gowns.

Happily, Kline is sharing the stage with a prize collection of high-comedy playmates. As Liz, Garry's estranged wife (and very engaged manager, who is determined to hold together his impromptu family of servants and collaborators), Kate Burton is such a sunny, soignť persence that at first you barely notice how deftly she wields her verbal knives. Summing up her marriage to Garry, she says, "I believe in going through any experience, however shattering." Later, when one of Garry's would-be sirens demands, "Are you trying to blackmail me?" she replies, "Yes, I am," with the sweetest smile and cheeriest tone imaginable. Cobie Smulders, dressed to kill in a clinging satin evening gown, makes a smashing debut as the man-eater working her way through Garry's little circle, with Garry as the ultimate prize. Kristine Nielsen lands laugh after laugh as Garry's secretary, who has seen it all and lived to tell the tale. When a gushing fan remarks, "I think he's even more charming off the stage than on, don't you?" her tactful response -- "I can never quite decide" -- wrings hilarity from understatement. She also has a showstopping moment when, entering with a pile of books in her arms and espying an unexpected visitor in Garry's pajamas, she flings the volumes around the room in shock.

Also adding to the fun are Bhavesh Patel as a borderline-psychotic fan; Reg Rogers as Garry's overwrought director; Ellen Harvey as Garry's growling, hatchet-faced housekeeper, a "Swedish spiritualist;" Peter Francis James as Garry's pompous producer; and Tedra Millan as a brainless, self-aggrandizing debutante who decides that it is her duty to relieve Garry of his deep, existential loneliness.

Such antics require swanky trappings, which are here delivered in spades. The action unfolds in Garry's flat, stunningly rendered by Zinn as a multilevel exercise in bohemian luxe, the Colonial blue walls covered with bookshelves and art, a staircase at stage center providing plenty of opportunities for grand entrances. Justin Townsend's lighting creates a series of time-of-day looks, each of them equally uncluttered and beautiful. Susan Hilferty's superb costumes range from sleek evening gowns to smart tailored ladies' suits to all those dressing gowns for Garry, who appears to change them out hourly. Fitz Patton's sound design includes some lively selections of period dance-band arrangements, not to mention the doorbell, the ringing of which inevitably promises that fresh chaos will rain down on Garry's household.

This sort of high-comedy frolic is much more difficult than it looks; otherwise, we'd be getting three or four of them every season. The best part of Von Stuelpnagel's production is that everyone on stage appears to be having a roaring time, thus making the audience want to join in the fun. Of course, the star sets the tone, and Kline's comic touch has only grown lighter, subtler, and more adept with the years. Present Laughter is a potent cocktail of bad manners and crossed romances, mixed by Coward and delivered by Kline, comedy's most elegant manservant. -- David Barbour

(13 April 2017)

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