by Carol Rocamora
There isn’t much laughter present these days – is there?
All the more reason, then, to thank PBS’s Great Performances Series for streaming Present Laughter, Noel Coward’s 1942 delicious drawing-room comedy-caper about an aging matinee idol of the London stage. In these troubled times, it provides you with two welcome hours of escapism into a frivolous, superficial world of a self-obsessed egotist suffering a massive mid-life crisis (based on the playwright himself, by his own admission).
The story features a few days in the life of Garry Essendine (Kevin Kline), on the eve of a touring commitment in Africa. It takes place in his posh London apartment (sleekly designed by David Zinn), where Garry has to deal with three women in his life (whom he’s either wedded or bedded), plus an assortment of other high-strung, colorful characters – his loyal secretary Monica (a hilarious Kristine Nielsen), a manic young playwright appropriately named Maule (Bhavesh Patel), and two of his producers (Peter Frances James and Reg Rogers). His admiring trio includes Daphne the debutante (Tedra Millan), Joanna the scheming femme fatale (Cobie Smulders), and Liz the constant (ex)wife Liz (Kate Burton).
It’s a smashing production (Broadway, 2017) with scintillating direction by Moritz von Stuelpnagel. Coward’s comic dialogue sparkles like champagne. Here are just a few examples:
Henry: “It’s a stab in the back.” Garry: “Not too low down, I hope”
Morris: “I”ll never speak to you till the day I die. Garry: “We can have a nice chat then.”
Coward-esque witticisms spring from his characters’ mouths, one after the other, like: “Eager young debutantes are ready to loose their latchkeys to you;” or “There’s nothing worse than regret. Look at Chekhov. He knew.” (The ultimate Coward joke is that many of the lines during the love repartée turn out to be dialogue from the past productions in which Garry has starred).
But the production’s pièce de resistance is Kevin Kline’s smashing performance. We all admire this esteemed actor’s stellar classical work (Hamlet, King Lear, Ivanov, etc.) But his supreme, God-given gift, in my opinion, is as a farceur. Remember The Pirates of Penzance, and A Fish Called Wanda? Kline is a master of physical comedy. From the moment he enters at the top of the stairs, swinging from the banisters, we’re off on a farcical romp, featuring Kline at the top of his game. A master of the “double-take,” he can make a hilarious bit last for minutes – like the revolving door routine he does with his butler Fred (Matt Bittner), or his multiple twitches in response to his demanding trio of admirers. Kline chews up the scenery because he can, and because the play simply begs for it. Director Stuelpnagel (of Hand to God fame) makes full use of Kline’s matchless virtuosity. Who says the American theatre can’t do farce, and do it brilliantly?!
Actually, there are some touching moments in this love rectangle. Coward makes fun of love – and at the same time shows its bittersweet aspects. “There’s something sad about happiness, isn’t there?” says Garry (probably a line from one of his past performances). At the same time, there’s his admission of loneliness, of vulnerability. “I’m always acting, watching myself go by,” he admits, ruefully. As Daphne, Tedra Millan dares to go over-the-top in her dizzy portrayal of the debutant, dazzled by Garry the star. As Joanna, the temptress, Cobie Smulders finds the perfect balance between predatory and playful. As Liz, the loving (ex) wife, Kate Burton gives a wry and witty performance to counter Kline’s extravagant one. As Monica, his loyal secretary, Kristine Nielsen shows off her superb comic timing (watch for the moment when she enters the drawing room and finds Joanna in one of Garry’s dressing gowns).
An interesting footnote in theatre history – Coward actually wrote the play in 1939. It was in rehearsal when the Second World War began and the British government closed the theatres. It subsequently premiered in 1942 (starring Coward), while the war raged on. As we live through our own world crisis, we’re grateful for this scintillating (albeit brief) comic relief. If only Coward’s title, a line from a song from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, will once again be true – that “present mirth hath present laughter.”
Present Laughter, by Noel Coward, directed by Morris von Stuelpnagel, directed for television by David Horn, now streaming at Broadway on PBS/Great Performances.