Kline has always been the most balletic of actors. The 69-year-old actor no longer does the incredible pratfalls of his marvelous turn ages ago in "The Pirates of Penzance" and "On the Twentieth Century," but then Garry Essendine is well into his 50s. The marvelous thing about Kline is that he gives the impression he could still do somersaults on stage if required, but instead makes do with the most incredible hand and wrist flips that turn even the donning of a dressing gown into a comic delight.
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Talk about a match made in heaven. Kevin Kline was born to do Noel Coward, and his casting as Garry Essendine, the 1930s stage star and aging playboy at the center of his own eternal melodrama in Present Laughter, yields a performance of unimpeachable skill, made all the more delectable by its lightness of touch. Matching witty verbal jousts with florid gesticulation, and head-to-toe body language that constitutes its own uniquely refined brand of physical comedy, Kline etches a character pulled between conceited selfishness and encroaching melancholy, a coddled man-child helpless without a captive audience.
Kline's nimble hands deserve their own applause from theatergoers at the St. James. He employs them like semaphore flags, punctuating moments. Like when he turns one of his mitts into a muzzle to quiet a gabby young conquest (Tedra Millan). At times you'd like to hush the talky play, which Coward wrote in 1939. It wasn't performed until 1942, due to the onset of World War II. Set over a couple days in Garry's London home, the action tends to go in circles as he prepares to go on tour in Africa. He ends up juggling seductions and interruptions and moaning about craving solitude. As if. He lives for an audience.
Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel does exceptional work with his ensemble, maximizing the manic comedy while allowing his leads to rise above type. There is humanity among these crazy characters and far more depth than you'd expect. And that's of course also attributed in large part to the performances. Cobie Smulders, making her stage debut, tackles the vixen role with alluring abandon. And Broadway veterans Kate Burton and Kristine Nielsen juicily sink their teeth into Coward's biting wit.
While this is an ensemble play with plenty of richly drawn characters, Kline is the colorful centerpiece, with the star delivering droll John Barrymore-like hamminess to cover his desperate fear of becoming obsolete.
I've just learned what it takes to create an absolutely splendid revival of Noël Coward's Present Laughter: Step 1: Cast Kevin Kline; Step 2: Hire a director whose name sounds like a punch line Coward might have considered-Moritz von Stuelpnagel. But not any Moritz will do. Find the one who helmed the equally hilarious but tonally rather different demon-possessed-sock-puppet satire Hand to God. There are further details (inviting design, surrounding Kline with a smashing cast), but the simple act of handing America's greatest exemplar of comic suavity a role he was born to play is half the battle.
Kline appears to be having the time of his life onstage at the St. James Theatre, where the latest Broadway revival of this 1939 drawing-room comedy opened Wednesday. It's a fast-paced and straightforward production, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, featuring two equally delightful and delighted costars - the goofily irresistible Kristine Nielsen as Essendine's stalwart secretary, Monica, and Kate Burton, steely and wry as his devoted not-quite-ex-wife, Liz - plus a mixed bag of supporting players and a jam-packed Edwardian flat of a set, designed by David Zinn, that gets its own entrance applause.
Whatever would we do without Kevin Kline? In an age of lesser stars, he's a bona fide matinee idol of the ideal age and with the urbane sensibility to do justice to sophisticated scribes like Noel Coward. "Present Laughter" is a delicious drawing-room comedy that Coward dashed off in 1942 to amuse himself and his friends, while engaging in a bit of sober self-reflection. Kline relishes the comic challenge in this snazzy production directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel.
In fact, this is a revival that, despite a cast of farce experts, treats the broad moments as rare offhand treats that flash suddenly on characters as momentary glimpses into humanity's silliness. Unlike Broadway's 2010 revival, in which actors pretended to look terribly sophisticated but instead looked tarted up for a Noël Coward costume party, this production has one absolutely critical element for Coward.
An unruly cast of stylish denizens has arrived at the St. James Theatre just in time to relieve the torpor of all of us currently afflicted by, well, almost everything, and offer the New York spring season a comic confection whose ability to delight and distract almost never falters.
It's high time we were reminded again of what a great physical comedian Kevin Kline is. Playing an aging matinee idol in the bouncy new revival of Noël Coward's "Present Laughter," Mr. Kline blissfully plies the witty athleticism and derring-do that won him two Tony Awards ("On the 20th Century," "The Pirates of Penzance") and an Oscar ("A Fish Called Wanda") in his youth. In the uneven but enjoyable production, which opened on Wednesday at the St. James Theater, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, Mr. Kline makes his entrance in a state of soigné disarray. His character, the stage star Garry Essendine, is suffering yet another stormy morning-after.
With all due respect to Noel Coward's classic English comedies of the 1920s through 1940s, do they really merit being revived so regularly? Sure, they're witty, classy and charming, but also insubstantial and tame by today's standards, and not especially relevant anymore. I suspect that we run into the plays so often because they contain great roles for actors, like the kooky medium Madame Arcati in "Blithe Spirit," the sparring couple Amanda and Elyot in "Private Lives" and the vain stage actor Garry Essendine in "Present Laughter."
Kevin Kline leads a talented cast in a rather plodding revival of Noël Coward's "Present Laughter," an intimate comedy on the boards at the not-so-intimate St. James Theatre. For this, the 1939 comedy's sixth Broadway outing, Kline, 69, plays a successful light comedy actor of 57, who spends much of the play pretending to be in his mid-40s.
Droll Kevin Kline In Noël Coward’s ‘Present Laughter’, Plus Harvey Fierstein & John Leguizamo – Broadway Review
All of which is to say that Moritz von Stuelpnagel's revival is fleet, funny, deliciously cast and over the top when it should be - and occasionally when it needn't be, sweating just a bit too hard to earn the audience's whoops of pleasure. Fortunately, Coward and Kline are too dynamic a duo to suffer any damage from such picked nits.
Something in the writing of Present Laughter never raises the stakes to the level of gasping hilarity that true farce can elicit. The urbanity, wit, self-possession, and control of Garry, Monica, and Liz mean that we never think the demons they have to ward off will do as much as even graze their knees. There's no real driving plot in Present Laughter, just a battery of Coward's mots at their most bon. And like the best houseguest, just before it outstays its welcome, it takes its leave.
His moral comedy is undiminished. The scene in which he finally calls out the sexual subterfuges of his comrades - and definitively rids himself of his own extraneous women - successfully counterweights the play's many trivialities. Most of the rest of the cast, under the direction of Moritz von Stuelpnagel, seems to have got the same memo: Play the problems, not the jokes. I was especially impressed with the women. Cobie Smulders, a star of How I Met Your Mother making her Broadway debut as Joanna, not only looks sensational in gowns by Susan Hilferty but finds a core of valor in a typically odious character. Kate Burton - who played the ingénue Daphne opposite George C. Scott in 1982 - brings exceptional clarity and warmth to Liz, who can sometimes come off as a scold. And Kristine Nielsen is hilarious as the trusty secretary Kristine Nielsen.
Dressing gown enthusiasts can rejoice at the return of Garry Essendine in the latest Broadway revival of Present Laughter. Not that Garry ever stays offstage very long. Noël Coward's creation, he made his debut in 1942, played by his author, and hasn't strayed far from the boards ever since. Has he aged well? Yes and no, as demonstrated by Kevin Kline's silky turn in the current production, a performance of stupefying charm that reveals some of the wrinkles and sag in the surrounding play.
The result is that laughter is only intermittently present. It feels lugubrious and weighty rather effortless. Our taste for the kind of theatrical vanity encapsulated by Essendine has long waned and it seems incongruous that his theatre career could support such a large permanent staff, including housekeeper, valet and secretary, or allow his house to look like Victoria station, with so many people coming and going.