|Victor Garber and Lisa Banes in Present Laughter |
Photo: Joan Marcus
The Roundabout Theatre’s revival of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter is devastatingly beautiful and damn funny. When the curtain went up the evening I saw it there was an audible gasp, followed by applause as the stunning art-deco set designed by Alexander Dodge is revealed. This seems to counter the latest trend of trimmed down physical productions (On New, Spare Broadway, Less Scenery to Chew, NY Times)
Victor Garber (Damn Yankees) brilliantly conjures up the spirit of Noël Coward in the auto-biographical role of Garry Essendine that Coward had originally written for himself. He is an egomaniacal actor surrounded by a cadre of characters that includes a secretary, a producer, a director, a cheeky valet, a chain-smoking “Scandinavian spiritualist” maid who mutters, a producer, a couple of women who have spent the night at his home for want of a latch key, a wife who left him years ago but never quite got around to divorcing him and a mad-as-a-hatter young playwright. Nicholas Martin has directed this spirited comedic confection to sheer perfection.
In the role of his secretary Monica is the very funny Harriet Harris (Thoroughly Modern Millie). Her ability to zing a barb is bested only by Mr. Garber’s. Holley Fain in her Broadway debut plays the sweet young waif Daphne who has spent the evening at Mr. Essendine’s house after forgetting her latch key. She can’t seem to stop talking and has quite an eagerness about her. James Jospeh O’Neil is Mr. Essendine’s uninhibited valet to whom he has to qualify his instructions when he brings in his coffee telling him to “put it anywhere – within reason.” Doddering in and out is the hilarious Nancy E. Carroll as Essendine’s maid, Miss Erikson. Her physicality in this production is extraordinary. You realize when you see her in the curtain call, that she is really a very attractive woman.
In a moment of temporary insanity Garry has answered the phone and agreed to give an interview to a young playwright, Roland Maule played with wild abandon by Brooks Ashmanskas (Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me). As the nutty playwright who has written a play half in verse, Ashmanskas chews up the scenery and spits it out as he does a belly flop from across the room onto the couch.
Harriet Harris in Present Laughter
Photo: Joan Marcus
Essendine is preparing to go to Africa with a repertory tour of six productions. In an effort to try and rein in the vein out of control actor, his staff, spearheaded by his wife Liz and secretary Monica (based on Lorn McNaughtan, Coward’s own secretary of more than forty years) stage an intervention of sorts. Liz eventually gets him alone and reminds him “You’re responsible for us and we’re responsible for you.”
Marc Vietor plays Essendine’s director Morris and Richard Poe is Henry, his producer. Henry is married to Joanna, a woman half his age. She is played by the striking Pamela Jane Gray. After Essendine promises Liz he will behave he is immediately set upon by Joanna. Despite the fact that she is already having an affair with Morris, she pounces telling Garry that he is the one she has been after all along. The next morning we are greeted with an eerily reminiscent scene of a young woman in Garry’s pajamas coming from the spare room on the first floor, Joanna.
Eventually, everyone in the room is threatening to go to Africa with Garry, when all he really wants is to be left alone. Liz, against his protestations tells him she is coming back to him. Roland Maude shows up with a small make-up bag and a teddy-bear under one arm. Daphne reappears under the guise of auditioning for Mr. Essendine. As it turns out, she is the niece of Lady Saltburn (Alice Duffy in her Broadway debut at age 81) to whom no one can say no.
While Coward himself considered this one of his lesser works, this top-notch cast, flawless direction and stunning design have turned this into a masterful production. This is a thoroughly enjoyable and light-hearted evening at the theatre.
Present Laughter is playing at the American Airlines Theatre through March 21.
Read full production credits at the Internet Broadway Database.