Friday, January 8, 2010

Theater Review: Present Laughter

Location: American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42 Street, NY, NY

Website: Official Roundabout Theatre site

Starring: Victor Garber, Harriet Harris, Brooks Ashmanskas, Lisa Banes, Holley Fain, Pamela Jane Gray

My Review: In my second helping of Noël Coward within the past year (the first being Blithe Spirit), I’m left with the impression that his plays must have seem hilarious to an audience of stuffy Brits when they first premiered over 50 years ago, but they’re starting to show their age. And while I don’t have any problem appreciating a dated show, I do fine it frustrating when it’s presented as unevenly as this one.

Present Laughter is a chaste sex comedy set in the late-1930s that focuses on the romantic exploits of beloved stage actor Garry Essendine—a ego-centric man in his 50s (or younger, depending who he’s impressing) planning a trip to Africa. But the few weeks leading up to his getaway grow increasingly complicated as he finds himself being pursued by various admirers. First there’s the young actress who swears he’s the guy for her, then a young male playwright who insists that Garry be in his new (and awful) play, and finally wife of one of his producers who may or may not already be having an affair with another producer. And then there’s Garry’s sort-of ex-wife, Liz, who left him years ago, but never got an official divorce and continues to drop in for regular visits. Garry’s main concern in life is that everyone have a good opinion of him, so he attempts to hide various infractions from certain members of his inner circle, which leads to a rather convoluted send-off to Africa.

The main problem this production has is that it can’t decide if it wants to be a droll, witty sort of comedy, or a slapstick farce. So, unable to choose, it attempts to do both. The majority of the cast adopts a stiff and stodgy British exterior, attempting to be prim and proper despite the madness going on around them. But then Brooks Ashmanskas, playing the overzealous young playwright Roland Maule, leaps and cavorts around the stage in some kind of clownish mania. Even once the play was done I wasn’t sure what he was supposed to be portraying. Is he flamboyantly gay? A star-struck stalker? Mentally unbalanced? An eccentric artist? Possibly any combination of these? I have no idea, and while his carefully directed pratfalls and wild gestures were obviously played for laughs, they really just created a jarring imbalance from the rest of the serenely performing cast.

What saves Present Laughter from completely falling apart in this uneven production is the presence of stage veteran Victor Garber as Garry Essendine. Garry is pompous, preening, and proud, and Mr. Garber captures all of this flawlessly, while managing to keep Garry somewhat likable. Watching him try to keep his cool while everyone around him loses theirs creates some of the best moments in the show. He also brings a childlike quality to the role, because at his core, Garry is really just a large child who indulges in whatever pleasure is immediately available, then worries about the consequences later—if at all.

Perhaps the biggest star of the show is the set. All of the action takes place in Garry’s London apartment, which is lushly decorated in art deco and features leather furniture, various animal prints, a sweeping staircase, and a grand piano in the foyer. When the curtain first rises on the cast-less stage you get a few moments to let the setting sink in before the action starts, and it’s clear from these first moments that this is a man’s place, and he’s a man who is loathe to accept any permanent feminine influence in his life.

The supporting cast is respectable, if not remarkable. The one standout—in a good way, unlike Mr. Ashmanskas—is Harriet Harris as Garry’s secretary. She’s quite possibly the one woman in his life that Garry hasn’t ever been romantically involved, but yet his relationship with her is closer than any of his other female relationships. Ms. Harris is probably just as much a stage legend as Mr. Garber, and the two easily play off each other and give the impression that they’ve had years to perfect the ease of this working relationship.

Bottom Line: While not a poor production, Present Laughter is ultimately a forgettable one. With its outdated jokes and inconsistent presentation of the characters, it’s the sort of show that makes you say, “I liked X, but I didn’t like Y,” and then immediately forget everything you’ve just seen. It would be great to see Victor Garber and Harriet Harris appear together in another—and more memorable—show, since the moments they share onstage are the best Present Laughter has to offer.

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