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'Present Laughter,' on Broadway with Victor Garber

Actors are waving prop cigarettes around the stage again, playing dress-up in dressing gowns again and pretending, with variable success, to be terribly sophisticated in yet another demi-classic comedy from the '20s and '30s about the travails of aging thespians.

If playwrights wrote about anything but theater folk with grand pianos in the decades between the World Wars, you wouldn't know it from the narrow choices lately by Broadway's nonprofit theaters. Since last spring, we have had David Hyde Pierce as a womanizing midlife playwright in "Accent on Youth," three generations of an acting dynasty in "The Royal Family" and now Victor Garber as the womanizing midlife star in "Present Laughter."

This is the 1939 Nöel Coward escapade about 50-ish matinee idol Garry Essendine, surrounded by women (and men) who want his body, and by his close circle of wisecracking theater associates, including an almost ex-wife, who supports in him friendship and business.

And that's really all there is, except for the absolutely critical element - style. Without it, the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival is basically just another swanky deco set (by Alexander Dodge) with smart costumes (Jane Greenwood), dowdy wigs and a fabulous winding staircase to nowhere of interest.

The good director Nicholas Martin is clearly not in his element here. Instead of trusting the devastations of Coward's offhand wit, he stomps breezy gestures with the heavy foot of running gags and exaggerated eccentricities.

Garber, a theater pleasure long before he played Jennifer Garner's father in "Alias," is not ideally cast as Garry, a flawed, impossibly attractive fellow created to play off Coward's own world-weary and wry elegance. Frank Langella last played the character here in 1996 as a big, bossy peacock who knew the value of a tantrum and a good vanity mirror. Garber almost makes the role work on his own terms, a troubled nice guy, less declining master tragedian than popular star of light romances and the ingénues that come with them.

Of the large cast, only Harriet Harris, as his capable, snappy secretary, and Lisa Banes, as his protective almost ex, survive the direction unscathed. Pamela Jane Gray is harsh and unsympathetic as the supposedly irresistible man-eating Joanna. And Brooks Ashmanskas is unbearable, encouraged to flit and flounce and strike obnoxious poses as the young male playwright obsessed with Garry. Oh, and at the end, the ritzy people and the servants gather around the piano and, as if Coward hadn't been mugged enough, sing.

WHAT "Present Laughter"

WHERE American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St.

INFO $66.50-$116.50; 212-719-1300; roundabout

BOTTOM LINE Coward mugged

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