Kevin Kline leads a talented cast in a rather plodding revival of Noël Coward’s “Present Laughter,” an intimate comedy on the boards at the not-so-intimate St. James Theatre. For this, the 1939 comedy’s sixth Broadway outing, Kline, 69, plays a successful light comedy actor of 57, who spends much of the play pretending to be in his mid-40s.
Why the harping on age? I make the point to argue that the ever-dashing Kline—as Garry Essendine, who is preparing for a tour of Africa—perhaps comes across less as a self-obsessed ladies’ man, allowing gals into his studio because they’ve “lost their latch key,” and more as a hermit, on the verge of yelling: “Would you all just get off my lawn?”
With its name derived from a song in Shakepeare’s “Twelfth Night,” “Laughter” follows a brief span in Essendine’s life during which he’s seduced or accosted by many figures, among them several women (including estranged wife, Liz, played by Kate Burton) and a flailing playwright (Bhavesh Patel), whose work Garry has agreed to critique.
The two-act farce opens with pretty Daphne Stillington (Tedra Millan), awakening in a guest room and asking the servants to wait on her. She’s spent the night, though direct implication of an affair is hazy. Kline soon descends from his upstairs bedroom, hair disheveled and nerves jangled by the life forms scuttling about his living space.
The performances are solid, with the best coming from Burton, as the devious but well-intentioned sort-of-spouse; and Kristine Nielsen, as Garry’s twitchy, ever-suffering personal secretary. (Burton, of TV’s “Scandal,” etc., incidentally made her Broadway debut as Daphne in a 1982 revival of “Present Laughter,” starring George C. Scott.)
I suspect audiences may attend “Present Laughter” anticipating a sweeping comedic performance from Kline—let’s call this the “‘Wanda’ and ‘Soapdish’ Rule,” in acknowledgment of earlier roles in which Kline established his reputation as an exaggerating thespian adept at playing bombastic narcissists.
But what we have here is more of a big chill. It’s fantastic to see Kline perform live, a treat Broadway audiences haven’t had since “Cyrano” a decade ago. He is still the master of bumbling and pomposity, adjusting his hair in the mirror each time someone rings his doorbell, but this performance doesn’t radiate pep and vigor.
He just never leaves us with the sense things are spinning dangerously out of control. “Have you ever seen me overact?” goes a line from the satin-robed protagonist to his secretary. If I may interject, the answer is yes … and I was hoping you’d do a bit more of it here, since this is a farce.
Burton is at ease and deceitful, offering a modern take on the “How can I miss you if you won’t go away” not-quite-ex-wife. She’s delightfully giddy, taking joy at every compromising circumstance Garry finds himself in. Nielsen (“Vanya and Sonia…”) derives equal pleasures from embarrassing her boss. Neither comes off as nasty.
Cobie Smulders, the “How I Met Your Mother” star, spices things up in her Broadway debut, with a take-no-prisoners confidence in her sexuality. Patel gives a strange performance as the playwright/stalker eager for Garry’s esteemed feedback. Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel might have asked him to dial it back a notch.
Each act has two sections, interrupted by one-minute scene changes where phrases such as “Talk to your neighbor” are broadcast on the curtain.
Let me not leave you with the impression “Present Laughter” is a failure. Any opportunity to see this kind of cast doing a Coward play with such high production values is worth seeing. I’m just not 100 percent convinced this is the “Present” anybody was expecting.
“Present Laughter,” through July 2 at the St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St. Tickets: $59 and up. Call 877-250-2929.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn