St. James Theatre
246 West 44th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through July 2, $59 - $199
In the latest Broadway revival of Noël Coward’s WWII-era comedy Present Laughter, two-time Tony winner and Oscar recipient Kevin Kline gets to put his stamp on Garry Essendine, one of the great characters of twentieth-century British theater, and he does so with devilishly wicked delight. He ferociously devours the scenery, following in the footsteps of such previous ferocious scenery devourers as Albert Finney, George C. Scott, Peter O’Toole, Frank Langella, Ian McKellen, Clifton Webb, and the original Essendine, Coward, who based the role on himself; other characters and incidents were inspired by real people and events as well, lending the show an intimate charm with plenty of knowing winks and nods. Essendine is a master thespian preparing for a tour of Africa, but not in peace and quiet — his apartment becomes a carnival of friends, colleagues, staff, lovers, and an oddball stranger. Late one morning, upon learning that Daphne Stillington (Tedra Millan), a young woman he apparently brought home the night before, is in the guest room, Essendine complains to his longtime assistant and confidante, Monica Reed (Kristine Nielsen), “Why didn’t you tell her to dress quietly like a mouse and go home? You know perfectly well it’s agony here in the morning with everybody banging about.” Also turning his impressive London flat (designed by David Zinn) into Victoria Station over the course of the play are Essendine’s ex-wife, Liz (Kate Burton); his manager, Morris Dixon (Reg Rogers); his producer, Henry Lyppiatt (Peter Francis James); Henry’s hot-to-trot wife, Joanna (Cobie Smulders); Daphne’s mother, Lady Saltburn (Sandra Shipley); would-be playwright Roland Maule (Bhavesh Patel); and Essendine’s irrepressible, good-natured valet, Fred (Matt Bittner), and rather strange housekeeper, Miss Erikson (Ellen Harvey). Essendine has built a kind of extended family around himself, one that he might not be able to hold together as things start falling apart, in classically British ways.
Kline (The Pirates of Penzance, On the Twentieth Century) is masterful as Essendine, his every gesture and utterance beautifully overplayed to the hilt, as if the character can’t tell the difference between the stage and real life, always acting, be it Shakespeare or vaudeville. Kline shows a flair for slapstick comedy reminiscent of Monty Python’s John Cleese — Kline won his Oscar for his supporting role in A Fish Called Wanda, which was written by Cleese and starred fellow Python Michael Palin — whether he’s falling down stairs or trying not to be seduced. The women in the show, which takes its name from a line from the Bard’s Twelfth Night — “Present mirth hath present laughter” — are terrific, led by the stalwart Burton, who played Daphne in Scott’s 1982 production; her Liz is not about to take any garbage from Garry while getting a kick out of all the crazy shenanigans going on around him. The always excellent Nielsen (Betty’s Summer Vacation, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike) who turns Monica into a den mother with a wry sense of humor about her boss’s philandering, and Harvey (How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, Mary Poppins) is nearly unrecognizable as the dour Miss Erikson, who is not the most caring of housekeepers. Smulders (How I Met Your Mother; Love, Loss, and What I Wore), in her Broadway debut, is sexy and elegant as the manipulative Joanna, while Millan, in her Broadway debut, follows up her success in The Wolves with another strong performance as the overexcited, high-pitched Daphne, determined to get what she wants. The men, however, do not fare as well; Bittner has fun with Fred, but James (Stuff Happens, Hamlet with Kline) and Rogers (Holiday, Privacy) can’t keep up with Kline, looking lost at times, and Patel (War Horse, Indian Ink) is so over the top as Roland that he seems to be in the wrong play. But director Moritz von Stuelpnagel (Hand to God, Important Hats of the Twentieth Century) is able to keep reeling it in whenever it threatens to go a little bit off track, with the help of Kline, who has such an impressive command of the stage and the character that there’s never a doubt that you will presently be laughing; even the way he checks his hair several times in a mirror almost as an aside is an absolute treat, capturing the essence of Garry, and Kevin, with just a few scant motions.