Producers seem to think of Noel Coward plays as safe bets in uncertain times: Dress the stars in smoking jackets and gorgeous gowns, surround them with canny supporting players, and plop everybody down in an ostentatious period set. The text itself will be critic-proof, and audiences will be enchanted by the witty exchanges.
If only it were that easy.
The Roundabout's revival of "Present Laughter" that opened last night hits all of these targets -- Alexander Dodge's lavish deco decor, in particular, gets applause -- and yet it almost never feels right. We're a far cry from "Brief Encounter," the warm-hearted British import that recently proved that one can be both innovative and true to Coward.
"Present Laughter" pivots around Garry Essendine, a popular, vain thespian whom the playwright -- who created the part -- modeled after himself.
Essendine (Victor Garber) is an incorrigible flirt for whom every interaction is based on seduction and play-acting. He's always on, but he's also genuinely charismatic, and capable of unexpected flashes of self-awareness -- the cad is entering middle age, after all.
But as Garber portrays him, this player isn't very playful. He almost never projects the kind of centrifugal force necessary to keep his support system (house staff, admirers of both sexes and assorted friends) orbiting around him.
As doors slam, people hide in spare rooms and even Essendine's normally unflappable secretary, Monica Reed (Harriet Harris), becomes overwhelmed, Garber looks as if he's disconnected from both the action and his castmates. Director Nicholas Martin even keeps him seated for much of the time, reinforcing an impression of passivity.
Typically, the confrontations between Essendine and his two biggest irritants aren't as funny as they should be. Our Lothario is less confident when he's a target -- and suddenly, two loose cannons have him in their sights.
The first is eager young playwright Roland Maule (Brooks Ashmanskas, literally bouncing off the furniture in an attention-grabbing performance); the second is man-hungry Joanna Lyppiatt (Pamela Jane Gray, coldly sexy), who's married to a friend of Essendine's while conducting an affair with another.
The performances are fun to watch -- and Garber does have a smooth charm -- except that they belong to different shows.
The last time "Present Laughter" was on Broadway -- with Frank Langella, in 1996 -- the production brought whatever homoerotic subtext one chooses to see in the play to the foreground. None of that here, but then little of any kind is brought to the foreground.
Except for big, comfy-looking leather furniture.
Have I mentioned that the set is fancy? It bears repeating.
Should Bergdorf Goodman experience a sudden run on velvet smoking jackets and silk pajamas, blame Victor Garber, the debonair star of the Roundabout Theater Company revival of “Present Laughter,” Noël Coward’s valentine to the maddening, marvelous world of the theater and to his own maddening, marvelous self.
In this frothy production, which opened Thursday night at the American Airlines Theater, the stage stalwart Mr. Garber, who has lately traded the boards for a checkbook-swelling stay in Hollywood, eases back onto Broadway as if slipping into a bubble bath, Champagne coupe in hand. As a vehicle for former matinee idols on the wrong side of 40, “Present Laughter” is ideal, a purring vintage Daimler that simply requires a magnetic actor of finely honed comic gifts to work its considerable charms. Mr. Garber fits the role as neatly as those silk pajamas fit him.
The central character, Garry Essendine, the sun around whom the play’s various characters circle in wobbly orbit, is a West End star of the 1930s for whom the footlights truly never dim. To emerge from the bedroom for a cup of coffee is to make an entrance, and everyday conversation quickly rises to histrionic heights that leave amateurs gasping for air.
In the first act, after rising at the crack of noon, Garry swans down the swirling Deco staircase (what else?) of his sumptuous flat to play a turbulent love scene. (Alexander Dodge’s eye-popping set is a bit of a scene stealer itself.) Daphne Stillington (Holley Fain), the star-struck young lady who so unfortunately forgot her latchkey the evening before, requiring her to bunk down in Garry’s spare room, refuses to depart before the proper romantic poses are struck. So Garry must go into his dance without any rehearsal, dispensing disillusion with the grace of a lover presenting a dozen roses to his sweetheart.
“Listen, my dear, ” he softly but firmly intones. “It isn’t that I don’t love you.” Brief, tender pause. “I do.” Still more tender pause. “I knew it the first moment that I took you in my arms last night.”
Just as Daphne melts into a swoon, the ardor dries up as Garry introduces notes of nobility and self-sacrifice. “But I am not free like other men, to take happiness when it comes to them,” he says wistfully. “I belong to the public and my work.” Sob!
Garry, who knows his audience as he knows every incipient wrinkle on his forehead, is quickly unencumbered of Miss Stillington, this morning’s problem, but a host of other torments are soon assailing him. His assistant, Monica Reed, played with her usual cackling acidity by Harriet Harris, has piles of imploring mail from besotted fans he has charmed with the wave of a hand. His wife, Liz (an amiably wry Lisa Banes), whose aid is enlisted in ushering the teary Daphne to the door, has grown tired of Garry’s romantic nonsense and urges him to grow up. (They have long since parted as bed partners but are fast friends and colleagues.)
And some real trouble is brewing: a possible affair between one of Garry’s steadfast associates, Morris Dixon (Marc Vietor), and the femme fatale married to his producer, Henry Lyppiatt (Richard Poe). The sudden arrival of Roland Maule (Brooks Ashmanskas), an eccentric young playwright whom Garry has inadvertently encouraged, threatens to upend the day entirely, making plans for the impending six-week tour of Africa that much harder to complete.
These complications are interesting only insofar as they inspire tirades of petulant self-pity, waspish anger and antic anxiety on the part of Garry, all delivered in the kind of crisp, wit-laced, elegant dialogue for which we still treasure Coward, who wrote the role (in 1939) as an affectionate send-up of himself and played it on tour in 1942 and subsequently in London and America. (Previous Broadway incarnations have starred Clifton Webb, George C. Scott and most recently Frank Langella.)
Mr. Garber surfs these heady waters with lithe dexterity. An impeccable English accent allows him to alter the rhythms and cadences of Garry’s outbursts to maximum comic effect. As Garry moves effortlessly from role to role — from the paternal lover to the cross but affectionate boss to the prickly husband — Mr. Garber makes subtly clear the delight he takes in playing each to the hilt.
“I’m always acting,” he says, in tones of mystified agony. “Watching myself go by — that’s what so horrible.” Mr. Garber makes us aware that for a man of innately theatrical temperament, this horror is definitely honey-dipped. The half-dozen parts Garry will be playing in rep in Africa are nothing compared with the dozens he performs for friends and associates every day, and he takes justifiable pride in the professionalism with which he tackles each one.
The imperious commanding officer of his small retinue of associates, Garry is also the temperamental child they are all expected to mind. And Mr. Garber’s still boyish good looks bring out the vestiges of innocent play beneath the temper tantrums. When Garry finds himself suddenly left alone in the play’s third act, amid the empty Champagne glasses and the limp streamers of his farewell party, Mr. Garber looks like a child whose toys have been mysteriously taken away.
The director, Nicholas Martin, who staged the play for the Huntington Theater Company in Boston in 2007, with Mr. Garber heading much the same cast, whips the farcical second act to fine peaks of dizzy fun. Mr. Ashmanskas gives a flamboyant, crowd-coddling performance as the antic playwright Roland, scampering about the stage like a rabid squirrel. (This role seems to invite outlandish interpretations; in the last Broadway revival Tim Hopper stripped naked.) As the seductress who confesses that the prey she has always been hunting is Garry himself, Pamela Jane Gray is a trifle glassy and arch, as if holding onto her British accent for dear life. But for the most part the supporting cast provides a solid trampoline for Mr. Garber to bounce off.
In today’s culture, celebrity increasingly looks to be about as much fun as a lifelong trip to the dentist. “Present Laughter” whisks us back to a more innocent past, when the trials of fame could still be negotiated with grace and style. In the glittery aerie in which Garry Essendine abides, after all, even the stalkers of the stars are well-bred, well-spoken and well-dressed. And there are no paparazzi in sight.
Substance is hardly a defining trait of Present Laughter (* *), now being revived by Roundabout Theatre Company at American Airlines Theatre. Noel Coward's feather-light comedy takes us back to the 1930s, when celebrities could still lead relatively private lives.
But matinee idol Garry Essendine, Coward's preening protagonist, doesn't need TMZ to make his life miserable. He has the friends and fans who are forever wreaking havoc in his London apartment. Under Nicholas Martin's curiously reverent direction, their shenanigans evoke a lengthy, dated sitcom, albeit one with some very capable players.
Stage and screen veteran Victor Garber is a dapper Garry, while Harriet Harris, another proven favorite, is a predictable hit as his seen-it-all secretary. Richard Poe, Marc Vietor and Lisa Banes are sturdy, if hardly revelatory, as other members of Garry's protective posse.
The interlopers are more self-serving and irritating, particularly as represented here. Pamela Jane Gray's droning femme fatale and Brooks Ashmanskas' flamboyantly idiotic writer/stalker are especially grating. Little wonder that Garry seems exhausted by the end. "I'm sick to death of being stuffed with everybody's confidences," he tells his cohorts.
Alas, he has no choice but to endure them. You, however, can avoid this Laughter altogether.
The silk dressing gowns and suave airs of aging matinee idol Garry Essendine are a fine fit for Victor Garber in "Present Laughter," as are the quietly melancholy undertones of a charming but vain peacock, too self-absorbed and infantile to appreciate the pleasures life affords him. He's housed in the swankiest of London apartments in Nicholas Martin's elegant production, with its gorgeous, honey-toned deco wall treatments and cascading chandeliers, dominated by a portrait of Garry as Hamlet that leaves no doubt as to who's the center of attention. But those assets can't keep a certain windy fatigue from creeping into Noel Coward's comedy.
This fourth Broadway revival of the 1939 play originated at Boston's Huntington Theater Company in 2007, during Martin's tenure there as artistic director, and frankly, it could have gained a little more oomph by recasting some of the supporting ranks.
Garry is the closest Coward comes in his plays to actually putting himself onstage. A world-weary playboy preparing to depart for the drudgery of a six-play repertory season in Africa, Garry sees his every need attended to by a retinue that includes his stoic secretary, Monica (Harriet Harris); his estranged but still affectionate wife, Liz (Lisa Banes); and business associates Henry (Richard Poe) and Morris (Marc Vietor). The precarious stability maintained by that unit of old friends is threatened by the escalating chaos of events kick-started not so much by Garry's indiscretions as by his childlike inability to be alone for more than a few minutes.
Garry is a ceaseless performer, flamboyantly commanding centerstage in his own everyday melodrama. And while Garber purveys a fine line in exquisite boredom, petulance and monumentally put-upon exasperation, it's obvious the character couldn't function without his loyal supporters. "A charming constellation of gossipy little planets circling 'round the great glorious sun" is how one resentful outsider puts it.
Martin's production is at its best -- and truest to the sophistication and restraint that is key to Coward's comedy -- when Garry is interacting with that core group. Poe and Vietor can't do much with their minor roles, but Harris' brittle acerbity and Banes' cool, collected veneer play nicely off Garber's mischievous self-awareness. Both women suggest the intuitive understanding and shorthand communication that come from time-tested, frequently strained but protective relationships with their demanding charge.
It's with the interlopers that the production's weaknesses -- and the three-act play's occasionally saggy structure -- become apparent. Necessary as it is to lay the groundwork for Garry's apathetic philandering and the transparent ruse of the women who maneuver their way into his busy evenings, the opening setup is made laborious by Holley Fain's flat turn as besotted ingenue Daphne. Her comic instincts don't go far beyond careful attention to the plummy English accent.
More conniving than Daphne but no less stiff a presence is Henry's man-eating wife, Joanna, given such a studied reading by Pamela Jane Gray that her pivotal second-act seduction of Garry is slowed to a numbing crawl.
At the other end of the spectrum is Brooks Ashmanskas as sycophantic aspiring playwright Roland Maule, his performance an exhausting eddy of prancing moves, demented tics and excited gesticulation that yields laughs but is more often distracting. Ashmanskas is responsible for a funny running physical gag involving Roland's overly zealous handshake, but while the role calls, to some degree, for excessive antics, there's a little too much of everything going on in his scenes.
In addition to Alexander Dodge's swoon-inducing set (which features a staircase worthy of a Jerry Herman musical), the production's visual polish extends to Jane Greenwood's soigne costumes and Rui Rita's mellow lighting, handsomely evoking the shifts between day and night. A sprinkling of Coward songs, including "World Weary" performed by Garber at the piano, and "I'll See You Again" cooed by the ensemble at the curtain, adds to the refined atmosphere.
It's all very classy and urbane, as it should be, and there's an ample stash of still-sparkling gems among the dialogue. But the production is too unevenly cast and paced to be more than mildly amusing.