BOTTOM LINE: This revival should be funnier.
What is the male version of a cougar? Because that’s the crux of Garry Essendine, the lead character in Present Laughter, Noel Coward’s 1930’s British farce. Played with a grand machismo by Victor Garber, Essendine is the epitome of an idolized celebrity swept up by his own egotism. And he is at the center of everyone else’s universe whether he likes it or not.
Sort of a Frasier Crane-meets-George Clooney (ten years from now), Essendine is your typical narcissistic, overdramatic, madly admired theatre legend. His celebrity entitles him to a certain lifestyle, and he isn’t one to deny opportunities to live lavishly. He also has the privilege of several doting ladies, making his spare room the place to be. Currently complicating his love life are the infatuated 24-year-old Daphne (Holley Fain) and his business partner’s wife Joanna (Pamela Jane Gray). Essendine is also being stalked by needy young playwright Roland (Brooks Ashmanskas), although we can deduce it’s probably a platonic admiration. If it weren’t for his loyal-yet-stressed-out secretary Monica (Harriet Harris), and level-headed ex-wife and current business partner Liz (Lisa Banes), it’s hard to say how Essendine could hold it together.
This set up makes for a fun British farce complete with love triangle (or is it quadralateral?) and ample dry, sarcastic jabs. Several outrageous characters allow for physical comedy and sight gags, and as the play itself is about an overdramatic actor, the cast really gets the chance to bring their performances to their brightest and boldest potential. Yet, it’s not all that funny.
I mean, sure, I laughed, and sure, there are some great individual moments (Banes has some funny bits and Nancy E. Carroll as Miss Erikson could keep me entertained for hours with her hunchback shuffle). Individually, many performances are entertaining on their own and the actors have clearly been directed to ham it up as much as possible. But as a cohesive evening of entertainment (three acts, at that), it’s just a little flat. And it plays it awfully safe.
This production originally played at Boston’s Huntington Theatre in 2007. Many of the cast members revive their roles for the Broadway production, including Garber. Director Nicholas Martin was also at the helm both times. The Boston version was successful enough to warrant a Broadway transfer, so perhaps at a regional theatre it played with a different energy. But this version seems weirdly disjointed and I’m having a hard time figuring out why.
Perhaps a downfall of this production’s timing is that a similar and superior revival of The Royal Family opened on Broadway earlier this season. The 1920’s quick-paced farce about a family of overdramatic actors played this fall at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Friedman Theatre. It was sharp, witty, energetic and pretty much delightful all around. Although Present Laughter is set in London a decade later, the intentions and humor of the two plays are relatively indistinguishable, and The Royal Family was cumulatively a much more successful and satisfying production.
Present Laughter is a safe bet for audiences who are looking for a more traditional and easy night at the theatre. It’s bawdy, but in a 1930s way, and its presentation is conventional. It doesn’t push the envelope or try anything new, although you could argue it doesn’t need to, as Coward’s script is engaging on its own. Take your parents or grandparents; it’s sophisticated but not inaccessible and entertaining but not contemporary. Just remind them to unwrap their candies at intermission.
Present Laughter plays at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., through March 21. Performances are Tue, Thu, and Fri 8 PM, Wed and Sun 2 PM, and Sat 2 and 8 PM. Tickets are $67-$117 and can be purchased at roundabouttheatre.org or by calling 212-719-1300; if you’re under 35, you can get $20 tickets at hiptix.com. For more information visit roundabouttheatre.org, and for more theatre reviews check out Theatre Is Easy.