Lisa Banes and Victor Garber in Present Laughter
(© T Charles Erickson)
Lisa Banes and Victor Garber in Present Laughter
(© T Charles Erickson)
In the cushy world conjured by Noël Coward in his exquisite piffle Present Laughter, now being given a smashing revival by Nicholas Martin at the Huntington Theatre, the worst crisis imaginable might consist of a case of inferior sherry. Never mind that middle-aged matinee idol Garry Essendine (Victor Garber) has his hands full fending off fierce advances, sexual and otherwise, from various avid fans -- even as he and his best friends vie for the favors of a woman who's clearly trouble.

The vixen in question, Joanna, doesn't appear until the show's middle act, which helps to build suspense. Except that when she arrives, in the person of Pamela J. Gray, she's a bit of a letdown. Gray is a fine actress, as proven by Martin's recent revival of Butley, but her look -- California-tan and buff, as revealed in a dress of daring dorsal decolletage -- doesn't fit the elegant, 1930s London setting that scenic designer Alexander Dodge and costumer Mariann Verheyen have so carefully assembled. She looks coarse, which is too much of a tell. But that's just one infinitesimal cavil amid this glory of visual and verbal delights, trippingly delivered by a crack company.

Garber, as smooth as the silk of the many dressing gowns he sports, seems utterly in his element, and his delight in the material shines through. Essendine is the quintessential drama king, utterly at a loss when not the epicenter of attention, and he loves to make himself out as a Job of put-uponness. He's the one creating all the chaos, but to hear him tell it, he's grossly undersupported and misunderstood.

His wife, Liz (the magnificent Lisa Banes), bailed out years ago -- although they never got around to getting a divorce. In fact, she still puts in regular appearances to tend to his business (and other) affairs. Essendine's acerbic longtime secretary, Monica, is likewise loyal, and Sarah Hudnut -- a touching Varya in Martin's recent rendition of The Cherry Orchard -- lends an intriguing hint of sexual tension to the role. The ease of their repartee suggests the intriguing possibility that, in Monica, Essendine may have finally met his match.

Still, he persists in pawing through a parade of gaga debutantes who, declaring age no impediment, insist on hurling themselves at his head. Their modus operandi is to cadge a night at his flat under the pretext of having "lost their latchkeys." We meet one such miss: silly Daphne Stillington (Holley Fain), who's as giddy as a bobby-soxer over her score and wants to make the sleepover permanent.

Her devotion, however, pales beside that of aspiring playwright Roland Maule (Brooks Ashmanskas), whose last name adequately describes the immobilizing handshake that this over-effusive character tends to spring on unsuspecting strangers. Ashmanskas is a mugger in the best sense; his face reveals a semi-maniac's shifting moods like a fine-tuned seismograph, and he scampers and cavorts and sidles as if his body were running away with him. In anyone else's hands, it all might be a bit much. But you can't take your eyes off him, much less stop laughing -- an inevitability that the other actors, especially Garber, graciously accommodate.

Coward, of course, did not set out to change the world; his mission was merely to chronicle the doings of a certain set that he, a working-class stage brat and son of a piano salesman, managed to hoist himself into. You won't emerge from Present Laughter in any way enlightened, just thoroughly, gratefully entertained.