That supremely under-rated British American actress Kate Burton is really holding her own against her over-blown. self-absorbed actor-husband played by Kevin Kline in Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter” on Broadway now . Its’ modest charms seem lost in the cavernous St. James theater.
Not one of Coward’s top drawer plays like “Blithe Spirit”, Coward tossed it off(and I mean that in more ways than one) while on tour during WWII with his war play “This Happy Breed.” He must’ve been very bored because the soignee part of Garry Essendine is partially based on his own self. As a vehicle, I suppose it can’t be beat, and it certainly is a big, juicy part, and Kline absent from the stage for far too long, makes the most of it. Or makes too much of it. really. I didn’t think you could overact this part of the always acting actor of the Old School Garry Essendine, but Kline comes dangerously close.
I missed Frank Langella is his ’96 production of “Present Laughter.” It was much faster and much funnier and had the great Alice Janney in the part of the no-nonsense, soon-to-be ex-wife Liz, that the Great Kate, is now essaying so elegantly. Liz Essendine, really, I’ve now come to think is the back-bone of the play, and Coward wrote it for Joyce Carey, his almost constant cohort and muse. And wrote a better part for her than he wrote for himself. Liz has to stand up to Garry and she’s the one who is really holding his household and Himself together as all hell breaks loose, as it always would and SHOULD in a comedy.
Garry is doing nothing more than swanning about in glamorous dressing gowns and ascots and acting, ACTING, and OVER-ACTING all the time. Coward himself would have no problems with this and Frank Langella certainly hit the right note, but oddly Kevin Kline doesn’t. Too many years in movies has dulled his panache. He seems huffing and puffing and sometimes breaking such a sweat running from schtik to schtik that he is a tad, dare I say it? Too old for the role.
But “Present Laughter” wouldn’t be on Broadway at all if it wasn’t for Kline’s movie star rep and his making all those films. His ex Patti LuPone is having no problem with holding the stage and playing and singing and ringing the rafters just down the Bway block as Helena Rubenstein in “War Paint” But more on Patti later.Kate Burton has quite a history with “Present Laughter” herself having originally played the part of the over-sexed ingénue Daphne Sillington, who has famously “lost her latch key”, in Act One in 1982, opposite George C. Scott. You see, actors keep wanting to revive Garry Essendine, but Kline barely makes it to Act III.
I also don’t remember “Present Laughter” being so long and so slow, especially in Act I. Another factor that defeats Kline. He has to do too much heavy lifting and is really having to put Act III energy into Act I trying to make it more madcap than it is really meant to be.
Someone who really lifts the level to the right manic place is Bhavesh Patel as the demented, obsessed playwright wannabee (read fan) Roland Maule. Patel is so fanatical that he rightly suggests the gay sub-text that we’ve known is there. If only the latch-key losers who keep hiding themselves in Essendine’s guest bedroom were male, the play would seem more relevant and less dated. But alas, in Blackpool, in 1942, when the play premiered in the U.K., Coward could not have done that. So what we’re left with is half-baked piffle. And you know what that tastes like.