On & Off Broadway

‘Present Laughter’

Review by Elyse Trevers


I have to admit I wasn’t very excited about seeing the revival of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter, a comedy that Coward wrote with himself in mind playing Garry Essendine, the lead. The play is thought to be somewhat autobiographical, except Essendine is a playboy and Coward was a homosexual. An aging theater idol, Essendine juggles the assorted characters in his life.

As the story opens, he’s preparing to go on tour in Africa but becomes distracted by the overnight stay of Daphne, a young debutant. His household staff is not surprised to meet her in the morning, wearing one of his dressing gowns. Young women find him extremely attractive, so they keep “losing their latchkeys” as an excuse to stay over in his spare room.

Present Laughter is delightfully funny and entertaining. Essendine, who preens before every mirror, has his own entourage, consisting of his former wife, the talented Kate Burton, an over-acting Reg Rogers as the director, Henry, his producer (Peter Francis James), and his confidant and plain- talking secretary Monica (Kristine Nielson). They all coddle and minister to him, catering to his every need and desire. Making her Broadway debut, Cobie Smulders (“How I Met Your Mother”) gives a strong sexy performance as Joanna, Henry’s wife.

The plotline is thin. Will Essendine’s night with Joanna, his producer’s wife, ruin his relationship with him, especially since his director is also having an affair with her? By the conclusion, to Joanna’s great frustration, their long-term friendship-business relationship stays intact and she’s just fallout.

The major draw of Present Laughter is Kevin Kline, a wonderfully agile good-looking actor, who has shown great versatility in his roles over the years, including the musical Pirates of Penzance, A Fish Called Wanda, Sophie’s Choice, and The Big Chill.

Kline is a terrific comedian. He’s athletic, lithe and able to milk an entrance just walking down the stairs. His slightly exaggerated hand motions, which might seem effeminate in a less masculine actor, just seem foppish and grandiose. It’s hard to envision anyone playing the role better.

It’s delightful to watch how much his facial expressions convey when he realizes that the girl in the other room must stay hidden (first Daphne, then Joanna). He shows amusement at the slightly deranged playwright who idolizes him but won’t leave him alone and his efforts at vanity are hysterical.

Present Laughter is a joyous farce and, for me, it was a revelation. The comedy is a limited run. It’s fun and a must-see.