BroadwayHD Review: 'Present Laughter'

Noah Golden

  • OnStage Associate Connecticut Critic

There are a few good reasons to watch the Broadway revival of “Present Laughter,” which has since closed in New York but lives on through a recording streaming on BroadwayHD. There’s its star Kevin Kline, one of the finest stage actors of our generation, delivering a very funny, physically-adroit and poignant performance. There’s the chance to familiarize yourself with the work of Noël Coward, a towering figure in 20th century drama whom many nowadays, including myself, are mostly unfamiliar with. There’s, of course, the chance to watch a Broadway play from the comfort of your own sofa with a ticket that costs less than a Times Square bottle of water. Those are all valid. But for the directors out there, I can think of an even better reason to watch “Present Laughter” – the pace.

The first of three acts proceeds at such a startling clip that I wouldn’t be surprised if director Moritz Von Stuelpnagel rehearsed his actors with a tickling metronome. It’s wonderful to watch a director with such a keen ear for finding and drawing out percussive rhythm in conversational dialogue. One can doubt the freshness of the material, which was written in 1939, but Von Stuelpnagel has the cast working at such a feverish speed it takes quite a while to notice the laughs are sometimes few and far between.

This theatrical, verbal ping-pong game begins with a pitch-perfect duet between Kline’s Garry Essendine, an aging actor with a flair for off-stage dramatics, and twenty-something aspiring starlet Daphne Stillington. While we’re not quite sure what happened the previous night, Ms. Stillington (played with delicious pep by newcomer Tedra Millan) emerges from the guest bedroom wearing one of Essendine’s trademark dressing gowns. She soon meets the colorful entourage who orbits Essendine’s life. Among them are a grumpy housekeeper (Ellen Harvey), a skittish valet (Matt Bittner) and a put-upon secretary (Kristine Nielsen).

Once the day starts, it becomes clear Ms. Stillington isn’t the only one who wants Mr. Essendine’s attention. A loopy playwright (Bhavesh Patel) comes to call, as does his producer (Peter Francis James), manager (Reg Rogers) and on-again-off-again spouse (Kate Burton). Oh, did I forget to mention the vampy Mrs. Monica Lyppiat (Colby Smulders), who is in possession of a wedding ring and a wandering eye?

Clearly, there’s a lot of characters swirling around in Coward’s farce. Perhaps too many. Even at such a brisk pace, this production – which runs two hours and fifteen minutes – can feel both sluggish and overstuffed. There’s only so much witty banter and door slamming one can take without more consistent jokes or a meatier plot to chew on along the way. Perhaps feeding off the live actor’s energy in person, the second half of “Laughter” would feel more fun and less fatiguing than it does in this televised incarnation.

If certain creaky aspects of the script felt stale, you certainly couldn’t fault this exquisite cast who do their best to sell every joke handed them and then some. Kline is a delight and it’s a treat to watch him return to the comedic roots that made him famous in “A Fish Called Wanda.” His surprisingly complex Garry Essendine is a bundle of ego and insecurities, sophistication and immaturity. He also delivers the best double-take I have ever seen in my 27 years of life, one that had me laughing so loudly I paused the film. (Heads up: it happens an hour and 34 minute in). Smulders, best known to me from “How I Met Your Mother,” perfectly emulates a silent movie seductress and plays excellently off Kline. Millan, Nielsen and Burton are outstanding as well, finding clever moments to embellish their stock roles.

The only misstep here is with Bhavesh Patel who plays writer Roland Maule with all the subtly and realism of a breathing Looney Toons character. You can’t really blame Mr. Patel, who does exhausting but often hilarious work that the audience seemed to love. But the direction makes him into a mix between an over caffeinated child and a shrieking (possibly gay) fanboy, which throws the delicate balance of the play’s tone into an overly cartoonish realm.

At the end of the day, “Present Laughter” strikes me as a fun outing at the theater but I can’t help feel its historical significance outweighs its modern entertainment value. As valiantly as the cast tries, I’m not sure this play holds up among better, more sophisticated door-slamming farces (like “Noises Off”). But for those who value witty exchanges, physical humor and screwball set-ups, there is still a lot of charm in “Present Laughter,” more than enough to recommend it.

“Present Laughter” is now streaming on BroadwayHD and will be aired on PBS November 3.

Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times