by Michael Bracken
Is it the time or the timing? It’s both, of course, but I have to think brisker pacing in the current revival of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter at the St. James Theatre could have saved Coward’s hoary farce from itself, at least in part.
Starring Kevin Kline as matinee idol Garry Essendine, a “bravura” role that Coward admitted writing for himself, the play takes place in Essendine’s drawing room, an airy space in turquoise and gold, overflowing with books and paintings and sporting a baby grand piano. It has a staircase stage left and a hallway leading to the entrance in back, as well as two doors leading to other rooms, which come in handy for quick exits and hiding. (Set design credit goes to David Zinn.)
Any number of women and even a few men want a piece of Garry, but he’s protected by his wife, Liz (Kate Burton), from whom he’s been separated for years, and his secretary, Monica (Kristine Nielsen).
Present Laughter is dated, and it wears its age on its sleeve. Still, it’s got its share of bons mots and sophisticated repartee. They’re just not quite as droll, one would think, and certainly not as fresh, as when Coward wrote the piece back in 1939. This production, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, exacerbates the temporal disconnect by taking its cue from its leading character, who lives life at a leisurely pace.
Leisure is all well and good, but when you’re dealing with a play as light as a soufflé, with considerably less substance, you really don’t want to give the audience too much time to think. In fact, there is a stretch in Act Two where von Stuelpnagel picks up the pace and that famous Coward wit reclaims some of its sparkle. But the spritely effervescence doesn’t last. It’s not that the play moves slowly or becomes heavy. It’s just not as light and quick as it needs to be.
Kline embodies the self-involved Garry with panache. Garry says he’s always acting, which gives Kline free rein to overact, since it’s not he but Garry who’s overacting. And Kline is smart enough never to go so far as to be abrasive.
Speaking of abrasive, Bhavesh Patel is given the challenging task of playing Roland Maule, a fledgling playwright who has managed to attach himself to Garry. Maule is a determined nebbish with an exaggerated, painful handshake (a recurring sight gag that’s not especially funny the first time), who won’t leave Garry alone. The trick for Patel – and I’m not saying it’s an easy one – is to make Maule annoying to Garry without alienating the audience. It’s the second part of the equation that needs work.
Kristine Nielsen is a delight as Garry’s secretary, Monica. Nielsen often gets type cast as scatterbrained, a strait jacket from which she broke out brilliantly in 2015’s Hir. Yet even then some of the trappings remained. Here she seems like a normal human being with an abnormal boss, more than capable of navigating the choppy waters of her employer’s celebrity and egomania.
Kate Burton’s Liz is her partner in crime, or rather in crime prevention, as they join forces to keep Garry honest. As Daphne, the stunning ingénue whose morning after entrance from the spare room puts the gears into motion at the top of the play, Tedra MiIlan makes an impressive Broadway debut with seemingly boundless energy and determination.
Susan Hilferty’s costumes generally capture the heart and soul of upper crust London, circa 1939. But it’s her jaw-droppingly gorgeous gowns that steal the show even, or perhaps especially, when wittily accented by a fur stole with feet.
Through Sunday, July 2nd at the St. James Theatre (246 West 44th Street). http://laughteronbroadway.com. 2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission.