I am, I suppose, a moderate fan of Sir Noël Coward: love the songs, love the pithy wit and quotability…but find myself surprisingly unaffected by a number of the plays, as they turn up in revival: Blithe Spirit (revisited last season) proved itself a quaint triviality; and now there’s Present Laughter, whose quaintness can be counted among its charms, but whose triviality is only as amusing as your tolerance for it.
Currently in Roundabout revival at Broadway’s American Airlines Theatre, about a very successful, very self-absorbed, yet charming and somehow agreeably worldly actor, Garry Essendine (Victor Garber) and the three kinds of people he has to deal with, in the late 1930s setting of his palatial London flat: (1) the “loyalists,” personal assistant (Harriet Harris), servants (James Joseph O’Neill, Nancy E. Carroll) and ex-wife (Lisa Banes), who care about him enough see through his postures, thus protecting him not only from spirit-draining forces, but from himself; (2) colleagues and business associates such as the producer (Richard Poe), a lover and former leading lady who is also the producer’s wife (Pamela Jane Gray), and a lesser fellow actor in love with the lover (Mark Vietor); and (3) the celebrity-struck naifs and crazies he often unwittingly encourages, who latch onto him and won’t easily shake off, such as a 20-ish one-night stand (Holly Fain) and an extravagantly sycophantic young playwright (Brooks Ashmanskas).
They all sound like the ingredients of delightful farce, but rather than using them to build an ever-increasingly involved cat’s cradle escapade with Swiss watch precision, Coward instead presents a more loosely structured series of confrontations his alter-ego Essendine has with the various sorts, as if to present an edifying comic essay on the burdens of success, fame and the casual sex that comes with. Though reportedly bracing in its day, Present Laughter no longer retains the power of shocking offhand candor; so any mileage to be gained in 2010 can only come from the innate charm of the actors and the comedy-savvy of the director (in this case Nicholas Martin).
And on that front, the play fares reasonably well. Martin doesn’t superimpose much, he just keeps the machinery moving cleanly, which is no mean accomplishment, and has assembled a cast, following the tone set by the tirelessly effervescent Mr. Garber, who likewise have an instinct for the light touch of light comedy, also no insignificant skill (which I say because in the previous  Broadway revival, many a gear got stuck for misguided direction and a degree of deadly miscasting).
again, your likely patience with what it’s all in service of should be your
barometer. If the travails of an eccentric, beleaguered matinee idol, and
Coward’s notes in celebrity seem to appeal, you won’t go amiss. But if it
sounds too familiar, then in the words of Mr. Essendine, you may well prefer
being “perfectly content to settle down with an apple and a good book…”
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