Despite the pleasure of hearing the strains of “Twentieth Century Blues” as the curtain rises on this ripping Roundabout revival of Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter,” this high comedy of mannerisms is otherwise intended to chase away any suggestion of the blues. It succeeds admirably. The play, an incomparable study in affectation by a master, may begin fitfully but it quickly builds into a frenzy of riotous behavior under Nicholas Martin’s sterling direction. If at first you aren’t blown away by the sumptuously, extravagantly Art Deco wood-paneled living room setting, the work of designer Alexander Dodge, then you will be by the extravagantly conceived portrayal by Victor Garber as Garry Essendine, the character Coward modeled after himself.
Even as the spectacular murals on the walls and a large portrait of Essendine/Garber as Hamlet and the gilded decor demand our initial attention, it only takes Garber a minute to rise above it all if indeed to transcend the boundaries of normal behavior as the idolized middle-aged matinee idol. If it is decreed that Garber’s performance should reek of self-adulation, narcissism, hammy excesses, and outrageously foppish behavior, it also serves as a mirror-gazing, scenery-chewing howl. Garber has finely-tuned the role he played (also under Martin’s direction) at Boston’s Huntington Theater in 2007.
If the play is understandably filled with innuendos and suspicions as to Essendine’s sexual nature, we are willing to focus on all the regrettable pursuits and relentless retreats that are designed to make a mockery of his dizzily entwining sexual intrigues. Posing, preening, and posturing whenever the hissy-fit or frenzied tantrum isn’t called for, Garber, nevertheless, confronts his various callers and colleagues, romantic or otherwise, with an overriding air of noblesse oblige. It all takes place in the weeks prior to Essendine’s embarking on a repertory tour of Africa.
The supporting cast has been given plenty of latitude, and they all demonstrate an ability to compete with Garber’s histrionics on their own terms. Lisa Banes makes a demonstrably resilient and impressive presence as Liz, Garry’s never divorced wife, now serving as his social guardian. Harriet Harris, an actress who might easily have used her precious minutes to steal a scene or two, is here charmingly restrained as Monica, Garry’s snippy yet devoted secretary (think Bette Davis in the film version of “The Man Who Came to Dinner”).
Likeable intrusions in Coward-land are Richard Poe and Marc Vietor as Garry’s chummy business associates; Pamela Jane Gray as Joanna, a manipulative married seductress; Nancy E. Carroll as Miss Erikson, the almost incoherent, chain-smoking Swedish maid; James Joseph O’Neil as Garry’s valet Fred; and Holley Fain as Daphne, an infatuated debutante.
When it comes to going over-the-top, however, the honor falls upon Brooks Ashmanskas, who plays Roland Maul, the avant-garde playwright perilously enamored of Garry. If Ashmanskas (also repeating the role he played at the Huntington Theater) is given free rein to define absurdist behavior, he also comically refines his character’s almost deranged state of mind with non-stop physical embroidery. Leaping about the stage he suggests a seriously demented version of “Afternoon of a Faun.”
A lovely touch doused with wry humor allows Garber to open Act II at the parlor grand piano playing and singing to “World Weary” quite wearily and wonderfully. It offers a prelude to Garry’s deliciously self-deluding line, “Complete naturalism on stage is my strong suit.”
Notwithstanding the array of striking dressing gowns worn by Garber, costume designer Jane Greenwood has dressed the women quite handsomely. However, for a production so fastidiously turned out and presented under the expert lighting by Rui Rita, it is a shame that the wigs and hair designed by Tom Watson are an absolute horror. To borrow from Coward in this regard, “It can be vulgar, but it must never be embarrassing.” But after all who cares a whit about the wigs when we have all that wonderful wit and wacky behavior with which to contend and be contented.
“Present Laughter” was written in 1939 but had a delayed (due to the war) premiere in London in 1942 starring Noel Coward as Garry Essendine. It had its Broadway premier in 1946 with Clifton Webb. Subsequent major New York revivals starred Noel Coward (1958), George C. Scott (1982), and Frank Langella (1996). ***
"Present Laughter," through Sunday, March 21, Roundabout Theater Company at the American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street. $66.50 to $116.50. 212-719-1300.