Present Laughter -- Theater Review

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Unless a comedy by Noel Coward is played with perfect precision, it tends to have the taste of champagne that has lost its fizz. Such is the case with the Roundabout's Broadway revival of "Present Laughter." In this production, the name of the lead character of aging matinee idol Gary Essendine, modeled on the playwright himself, has been reduced to Gary. Like that wayward letter, something has been lost along the way.

Director Nicholas Martin would have seemed to be on the right track with his casting of Victor Garber. The handsome, naturally elegant actor -- making a too-long-delayed return to the New York stage -- would seem to be a perfect fit for Essendine, or at least the fancy smoking jackets of which the character is inordinately fond.

But Garber seems to be resisting the larger-than-life elements of the role, attempting to convey the psychological truth of Essendine's midlife crisis rather than the vainglorious aspects of his personality. The results are a "Present Laughter" without much laughter, indeed.

(By the way, one needn't be British to play Essendine convincingly, as George C. Scott and Frank Langella entertainingly proved in previous Broadway mountings.)

The supporting cast is somewhat more effective, with particularly strong turns by Lisa Banes as Garry's still-doting ex-wife and the always reliable Harriet Harris as his acerbic secretary. On the other hand, Brooks Ashmanskas, as the aspiring playwright desperate for Essendine's attentions, is wildly over the top, delivering an outsized slapstick turn that jars with the rest of the production. (Admittedly, his efforts were greeted with much raucous laughter from the audience, who might have appreciated being relieved from their general torpor).

As is usually the case with Roundabout shows, the production is wonderfully elegant, featuring a gorgeous art deco depiction of Essendine's London flat and costumes so sumptuous that you can practically sense the enjoyment of the actors wearing them. Too bad more of that pleasure couldn't have been shared by the audience.

Venue: American Airlines Theatre, New York (Through March 21)
Cast: Victor Garber, Harriet Harris, Brooks Ashmanskas, Lisa Banes, Nancy E. Carroll, Alice Duffy, Holley Fain, Pamela Jane Gray, James Joseph O'Neil, Richard Poe, Marc Vietor
Playwright: Noel Coward
Director: Nicholas Martin
Set designer: Alexander Dodge
Costume designer: Jane Greenwood
Lighting designer: Rui Rita
Sound designer: Drew Levy
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