Kevin Kline, Cobie Smulders, and Kate Burton star in Noël Coward’s venerable farce

By Jesse Oxfeld
April 05, 2017 at 09:00 PM EDT
Joan Marcus

From Nathan in Sophie’s Choice to Otto in A Fish Called Wanda, Kevin Kline built his career portraying over-the-top hams. Now he’s playing a glistening, honey-baked version, the matinee idol Garry Essendine in Noël Coward’s venerable farce Present Laughter. It’s a role Coward, a playwright, composer, actor, and bon vivant, created for himself, based on himself, and Kline — whose movie career includes turns as both Cole Porter and Errol Flynn — takes to it like, well, a pig to slop.

Kline appears to be having the time of his life onstage at the St. James Theatre, where the latest Broadway revival of this 1939 drawing-room comedy opened Wednesday. It’s a fast-paced and straightforward production, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, featuring two equally delightful and delighted costars — the goofily irresistible Kristine Nielsen as Essendine’s stalwart secretary, Monica, and Kate Burton, steely and wry as his devoted not-quite-ex-wife, Liz — plus a mixed bag of supporting players and a jam-packed Edwardian flat of a set, designed by David Zinn, that gets its own entrance applause.

There’s something Frasier-y about the enterprise, not least because it opens with an extended riff of piano jazz as we wait for the great man to arise. (This makes sense, as Frasier was essentially an English farce relocated from rainy London to rainy Seattle.) But Present Laughter is also a romp of sitcom-like goings-on, incredibly well executed, among the retinue surrounding a vain, self-impressed, charming star, all conducted in his living room. Here, there’s that secretary and that not-quite-ex-wife, a valet and a maid, plus his producer, Harry, and his director, Morris, and a few women, throwing themselves at him.

One of those women is lissome young Daphne Stillington (a pert and game Tedra Millan), who opens the play wandering in from the guest room. It’s the morning after a party, and she has followed Essendine home — it’s perfectly innocent, you see, as she lost her latchkey and needed a place to sleep. The household staff soon trundle her back into the bedroom — Mr. Essendine won’t wake until he’s good and ready, she’s assured — and soon enough Kline makes his grand entrance, in silk pajamas and dressing gown, atop a staircase. He’s discoursing to Monica when Daphne reappears, to announce her love. Was he acting when he’d told her he’d never let her go? “I’m always acting,” Essendine tells her.

That’s the key to Present Laughter, that Garry is always acting, and that everybody is in love with him. It’s part of what makes Kevin Kline such a good fit for the role, because he possesses those same qualities, but it’s also what makes the play so fun, that everything he says and does is a put-on, and that it will all be forgiven. Over the course of its two and three-quarter hours, Essendine will take up with two women — the other one, Joanna (a sultry Cobie Smulders, less alluring than her character is presented to be), is married to Harry and carrying on with Morris — attract a deranged aspiring-playwright hanger-on, betray his two best friends, and parry with the secretary, the ex-wife, and the help. (Nielsen, playing the secretary, is the master of the snide reply.)

It all comes together, as it must, in a madcap second act that reunites everyone in Essendine’s living room, where doors are slammed, people are hidden, and truths are finally, somewhat dizzily, revealed. But the biggest revelation is that the producer and director have secured a theater for a major new play for Essendine, once he returns from Africa. Betrayals are forgotten, as are the angry girls, as the Essendine and his old friends start making plans for their next show.

After all, theater folk are always acting. B+

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