I saw Kevin Kline in Present Laughter last night—and that's the only way to say it. Not, "I saw Present Laughter ... but "I saw Kevin Kline in Present Laughter." And by that I don't mean he's the whole show, for there are other terrific things in it. But was there any other reason to revive Noël Coward's exceedingly light-comedy (first written in 1939) other than to give this gifted actor a chance to show us how good he still can be?
Every inch a star—Kevin Kline as Garry Essendine in Present Laughter (2017).
Coward’s frothy three-act has almost certainly somewhere along the way been called “a soufflé of a play,” which is both sweet and appropriate. After all, what do we think of when a soufflé is mentioned? Something that requires skill to pull off and, if it goes wrong, falls flat and becomes inedible. Happily, this new Broadway production under the director of Moritz Von Stuelpnagel, keeps its balls bouncing, save for whenever Mr. Kline, in the leading role of leading man Garry Essendine—an actor forever on stage —is on stage. When’s he’s off, things suffer slightly—a little. Not due to the other actors, mind you— no.But having written the role for himself, Mr. Coward exclusively took all the best lines. And why not? In his hey day, few could deliver them with the cunning precision he could. I never saw him on stage, as his last appearance on Broadway was in a 1958 revival of Present Laughter when I was one year old, but there are plenty of film and television appearances which make it clear how effortlessly any bon mot would pop out of his mouth. Once you've heard Coward speak the line from his Private Lives, "Don't quibble, Sybil," it's pretty much ingrained into your head for eternity.
Present Laughter follows a vain and thoroughly self-obsessed actor, who while readying himself for a tour of Africa with six plays in repertory, must fend off a slew of women all wanting to seduce him, including his wife who left him some time ago, but still carries a bit of a torch. Add to the mix the continuing saga of Garry's mid-life crisis, and it isn't long before the situation turns to farce. It's no wonder Garry Essendine has attracted a hoard of such British actors as Simon Callow, Albert Finney, Ian McKellen and Peter O'Toole, as well as Americans like Clifton Webb (who did the first Broadway production in 1946) and George C. Scott, Frank Langella and Victor Garber, who appeared in subsequent New York productions over the next six decades.
I did get to see George C. Scott in the 1982 production (which was the occasion for the hysterical Broadway debut of Nathan Lane in the role of the fanatical fan/young playwright), and though Scott was physically not right, he managed to pull it off in his own unique style, which had little to do with Coward's. What it was was stylish and refreshing, and he held the stage like a true star, which I would imagine came naturally to an actor of Scott's caliber.
George S. Scott as Garry Essendine (1982).
It was in 1978 that I first saw Kevin Kline in the Cy Coleman-Betty Comden & Adolph Green musical On the 20th Century, for which he won his first Tony Award, and I was floored (as was just about every one else). It wasn't just that he was hilariously funny, or that the kind of physical comedy he was doing had been considered dead and buried since the days of baggy-pants burlesque, it was that it came dressed up in the form of a matinee idol. Looking like Errol Flynn (whom he recently played in 2013's The Last Days of Robin Hood), Kline was a comedian trapped in the body of a leading man: as perfect a fit for Garry Essendine as one of the character's fur-lined gloves (which though we never see him wear, must surely be part of his extravagant and extensive wardrobe).
Kline and Madeline (Kahn, that is) in On the 20th Century (1978).
It was kind of astounding to see Kline on the stage of the St. James last night performing the kind of physical comedy that made him a star nearly 40 years ago in 20th Century (at the same theatre, in fact). Although approaching seventy come October, there's little doubt in my mind that he could play the role of Bruce Granite in that musical tomorrow and still manage to bounce off the walls, as he did in one memorable sequence. When in Present Laughter, Kline puts on a cream-silk robe and adores himself in the mirror, the line "If these shoulders were only mine" gets the requisite laugh it deserves. Only it's the extended (but not too extended) bit of business that Kline does with his shoulders that tops the first laugh with two or three more. It's one of the things I liked best about his performance: that he took funny, risky chances that were always very, very real. There was nothing cartoonish about his portrayal, even though there were a few cartoon-y ones going on around him. No, Kline stayed grounded and it made him a forceful center, never descending into silliness, even if the role demanded it. He was always sincere in his insincerity, impossibly vain in his vanity, and adorable even at his most infantile. It was artful watching an actor be so in tune with his instrument and orchestrate a performance in such a calculated way, without ever letting the sweat show. Truly masterful.
Last night was the first time I had seen Kline on stage in twenty years. That was in a production at Lincoln Center of Chekhov's Ivanov, and prior to Present Laughter, he has only been back on Broadway two times. That averages four appearances every five years. Not enough. Perhaps come June 11th, a Tony Award from his peers as Best Actor for his work in this play (he is nominated, of course) will be a nice incentive from the Broadway community to say—in the words of a musical currently packing them in on the same 44th Street—"Promise you'll never go away again."
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Up-Cheap-Seats-Historical-Broadway/dp/0998168629/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1494611605&sr=8-4&keywords=up+in+the+cheap+seats+book