Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Review: An Easy Night of Laughs

By Michael Block

Filling the classical quota of the season, Noel Coward’s Present Laughter is the surefire show that won't upset the status quo. But rather than just be another production of a Coward play, this production is a hit simply thanks to its star, Kevin Kline. Directed by Moritz Von Stuelpnagel, Present Laughter is a night of full laughter and high-class comedy.
Following the days in the life of egomaniacal playboy Garry Essendine as he’s set to embark on an African theater tour, Present Laughter is the madcap adventures of the people that populate Garry’s flat and the women who desperately want him. The almost farce-like light comedy is a Coward classic that is an easy audience pleaser. Moritz Von Stuelpnagel directs the play a bit safe but fills it with hilarity. And that’s thanks to Kevin Kline as Garry Essendine. Kline is a natural comedian. He knows how to land a joke. His physical comedy is effortless. And no matter who his scene partner is, his ability to take and give the moment proves his strengths as a performer. Put anyone else in this role and Present Laughter would be a blip on the map of the Broadway season. Kevin Kline makes the production worthy of recognition. Alongside him was a strong supporting ensemble of women including the delightful as always Kristine Nielsen as Monica, Garry’s secretary, Kate Burton as the sly Liz Essendine, Garry’s former wife, and extraordinarily whimsical Tedra Millan, making her Broadway debut, as Daphne Stillington. The other leading lady in Garry’s life was Joanna played by Cobie Smulders. Smulders was strong in her characterization but she was unfortunately a bit rigid and robotic in her take on the debonair wife of his producer Harry and mistress of his manager Morris. With the rest of the cast taking big leaps in comedy, Smulders approach seemed to place her in a different play. Von Stuelpnagel didn’t seem to have the tools to bring her into the same world as the other characters.
photo by Joan Marcus
As a period piece set in 1939 London, Von Stuelpnagel and his team honored the time, and Garry’s personality, through the entirety of the design. The scenic design by David Zinn featured a stylish home that was a bit chaotic. With books lining every inch of every shelf and artwork strewn about the walls, even creeping down on the shelves, there were no details left out. The color scheme was classic and soothing. The only down side was no matter the seat, you’re likely to miss something. The layout of the apartment was specific, calling attention to the necessity of Von Stuelpnagel’s comedic staging. Doors were placed in certain areas to cause quick timed reveals. A mirror was cleverly placed near the hallway where Kline’s Garry did double takes to check his appearance. And then there is said hallway where the audience gets glances on who’s ringing the bell often before the characters. But depending on where you were seated, you likely missed some of these comedic beats. Personally, I lucked out and only missed the entrances from the main door but as I was cackling every time Kline looked in the mirror, my neighbors to my left were left out of the moment as they couldn’t see the action. The costumes designed by Susan Hilferty were first rate. Matching the personas of each character through color, cut and fit, Hilferty too honored the period while maintaining the high status of this world.
Present Laughter was a great vehicle for a triumphant Broadway return for Kevin Kline. Sometimes you just need to go to the theater for a laugh and this production fulfills that. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to Noel Coward.