by Elizabeth Ahlfors
Cobie Smulders as Joanna Lyppiatt and Kevin Kline as Garry Essendine in Present Laughter. Photographer: Joan Marcus.
Kevin Kline returns to Broadway after ten years to take a role he can dine on with relish. This is Noel Coward, after all, and Kline's charmingly supercilious role as fading matinee idol, Garry Essendine, is tailor-made for swanning around his London digs, lording it over his entourage, an ex-wife, nubile wannabe actress, housekeeper, snippy manager and sycophantic playwright. Who wouldn't have fun with such a captivating witty and complex character who is satirically based, some say, on the playwright himself? And few can do it better.
In Present Laughter, Kline is hilarious with incisive timing, at the same time, poignant and on target portraying Essendine's uneasiness as a fading public star in constant battle with his private reality. He says, "I'm always acting, watching myself go by." Kline is fascinating to watch ashe flaunts Essendine's sudden soliloquies and melodramatic poses and the character's Achilles heel for fawning adulation, impatience with the mundane and preening for a last look in the mirror. As the cherry on the top, Kline has an engrossing cast, all confidently kept in line by director Moritz von Stuelpnagel.
The farcical plot keeps Garry and the colorful cast on the move but also lets everyone emerge with dimension as he or she dances to Essendine's tune. Kate Burton, as Liz, his stalward but still loving former wife, stands out with her usual believability. She tries to keep Essendine's head above water while recognizing his character weaknesses, which probably led to their breakup. Also notable is Kristine Nielsen, who as Monica Reed, has a handle on Coward's wit and fits like a glove into her role as super-efficient secretary, who is efficient but also shows true fondness for her employer and his well-being.
At the top of the play, Tedra Milan portrays aspiring young actress, Daphne Stillington who finally realizes that her unrealistic hopes based on a one-night stand will not bring her the theater success she craves. Essendine's quasi-love affair with ultra-chic status seeking Joanna Lyppiatt (Cobie Smulders) adds a subplot with Joanna's marital complications. As an untalented young playwright, Bhavesh Patel brings a needy dependency to Roland Maule. Swedish housekeeper Miss Erikson (Ellen Harvey), roams about, cigarette dangling from her mouth and butler Fred (Matt Bittner), moves crisply to Essendine's demands.
Scenic designer David Zinn's set of Essendine's flat draws the portrait of an elegant yet well-lived in home. Also respectful of the period are the clothes by costume designer, Susan Hilferty who dresses each character with singular distinction. Not only the women, but Essendine as well gets a share of smart attire, smoking jackets and notable a white dressing gown that his ex-wife brings him as a gift, proving she still knows exactly what he would like.
Kline's skill, style and sophistication does justice to Noel Coward's 1939 English comedy of warmth and desperation, a fine choice for his return to Broadway. With Kevin Kline stepping in to lead the company, Present Laughter is a pièce de résistance this theater season.
St. James Theatre, 246 West 44 Street. NYC
Previews: Mar. 10, 2017. Opened Apr. 5, 2017. Closing July 2, 2017.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes. One intermission.
Written: Noel Coward
Directed: Moritz Von Steulpnagel
Cast: Tedra Millan (Daphne Stillington), Ellen Harvey (Miss Erikson), Matt Bittner (Fred),Kristine Nielsen (Monica Reed), Kevin Kline (Garry Essendine), Kate Burton (Liz Essendine), Bhavesh Patel (Roland Maule), Peter Francis James (Henry Lyppiatt), Reg Rogers (Morris Dixon), Cobie Smulders (Joanna Lyppiatt), Sandra Shipley (Lady Saltburn)
Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors | Also appearing in TotalTheater.com