WHAT “Present Laughter”
WHERE St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St.
INFO $59-$150; 877-250-2929; laughteronbroadway.com
BOTTOM LINE Blissful Kevin Kline in stylish, understated Coward
Kevin Kline has always struck me as a character actor trapped in a leading man’s body — too quirky and complicated to be satisfied as a romantic hero, but too great looking to simply play the fool.
This contradiction has found a blissful home as Garry Essendine, the reluctantly aging, casually devastating matinee idol in “Present Laughter,” the 1939 drawing-room comedy that Noël Coward wrote to be played by his own world-weary, wry, elegant self in 1939 but, interrupted by war, did not open until 1942.
This is, surprisingly, Kline’s first Coward and, curiously, his first Broadway star turn since his heart-shredding Cyrano in 2007. Unlike Frank Langella, whose 1996 Garry was a big bossy peacock who knew the value of a tantrum, this one wears his magnetism with an understated combination of bemusement and alarm. Directed with classy restraint by Moritz Von Stuelpnagel (best known for having staged blasphemous hand puppets in “Hand to God”), Kline holds back his virtuosic physical comedy until near the end, when his quick, startling feats made me want to rewind and watch them all over again.
Garry, of course, is surrounded by women (and men) who want his body, and by his close circle of wisecracking theater associates, including an almost ex-wife (the admirable Kate Burton) who support him in friendship and business. The glamorous troublemaker is Joanna (the glamorous Cobie Smulders), wife of Garry’s longtime producer (Peter Francis James) and lover of their director (Reg Rogers, perhaps more hysterical than absolutely necessary).
Then there is the staff in Garry’s studio, designed by David Zinn as the lived-in home of an artist with eclectic tastes and not as the usual deco vault. Kristine Nielsen, that comic pro, is sturdy and endearing as Garry’s snappy secretary and, despite seeming more Teutonic than Scandinavian, Ellen Harvey has a blasé outrageousness as the maid/mystic.
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.