Let’s cut to the chase. Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s revival of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter is a brilliantly fine-tuned comedy of style and substance, and if you want to see an ensemble of actors that truly embodies the very best of Broadway, I suggest you grab a seat at the St. James Theatre while you can during the production’s limited 16-week run.
Led by Kevin Kline (Tony Award winner for The Pirates of Penzance and On the Twentieth Century) as Gerry Essendine, a self-absorbed comedic stage actor preparing for a theatrical tour of Africa, the plot follows a handful of characters intertwined in Gerry’s life, including his estranged wife Liz (Kate Burton); producer Henry (Peter Francis James) and manager Morris (Reg Rogers); smart-mouthed secretary Monica (Kristine Nielsen); obsessed fan Roland (Bhavesh Patel); and several one-night trysts, including the wide-eyed 20-something Daphne (Tedra Millan) and Henry’s wife Joanna (Cobie Smulders).
As the action unfolds, Gerry is thrust into a cavalcade of hysteria as everyone wants a piece of the persona he has created. This juxtaposition of who Gerry really is and what he represents to his adoring fans is confusing even to him. Kline creates a character that is broadly comedic, yet with an underlying authenticity that makes you adore him in spite of his bloated ego.
Take one look at today’s headlines and you can see versions of Gerry simmering among the higher ranks of our politicians—except for one major difference: Gerry has heart and a wisp of vulnerability that makes him relatable.
Kline, who has vacillated a successful career between theater and film for nearly 40 years, has plenty of A-list talent to folly with and they rise to the occasion in nearly every instance. As his wife and manager Liz, Kate Burton if often tasked with playing the straight face to the antics surrounding her—not an easy feat—but she does it with such grace and style you wonder how Gerry could ever let her slip away. But it is Nielsen’s sharp-tongued Monica that really keeps Gerry in check along with the rest of the comings and goings. As the bumbling pair of business partners, James and Rogers jet in and out of the action with precision, and Rogers, especially, is a charm to watch with his purposefully mush-mouthed dialect and ever-present cocktail.
Act II begins much like Act I, with Gerry dealing with the repercussions of a one-night-stand. But while the first tryst was with the more manageable Daphne, the second one with Joanna reverberates more deeply among his tight-knit clan. Smulders is—no pun intended—smouldering and I hope that Broadway can keep her around as her television and film career take off.
The production value is equally first-rate, with a gorgeously detailed set (David Zinn) in saturated shades of Wedgwood blue, jewel-toned costumes in exquisite cuts (Susan Hilferty), and hair design (Josh Marquette) that captures the allure of the late 30s.
Stuelpnagel (who was nominated for a Tony award last year for directing Hand to God) keeps things moving at a brisk pace and though the action-packed staging is meticulously choreographed, Present Laughter remarkably feels as though it’s unfolding for the very first time.
St. James Theatre
246 West 44th Street
Through July 2
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on social media at @roodeloo.