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Present Laughter

Victor Garber leads a hardworking cast in the Roundabout Theatre's revival of Noel Coward's boulevard comedy.

By New York City
Victor Garber and Lisa Banes
(© Joan Marcus)
Victor Garber and Lisa Banes
(© Joan Marcus)
Noel Coward described his 1939 comedy Present Laughter -- in which he initially played the role of the put-upon yet debonair actor Garry Essendine -- as "a series of autobiographical pyrotechnics." For the Roundabout Theatre's current revival, with suave-as-a-pair-of-kid-gloves Victor Garber in the focal role, director Nicholas Martin has ladled on the acting pyrotechnics. Out to pull maximum yuks from the self-deprecating Coward lines, the ensemble does everything short of cartwheels to achieve the sought-after results; but too often, the cast gives the impression they're at a noisy party where they have to exert extra effort just to be heard.

When Coward wrote the play, he'd been in the public eye so long as the embodiment of industry that he figured it would be fun to contrive to let the audience in on the hectic routine that was his life, but at the same time confirm that in many aspects it was as glamorous as the public believed.

So here, over the course of 10 days -- as Essendine prepares to take a troupe of players to Africa on a theatrical tour -- the beleaguered actor must deal with various associates and admirers, including his still-loyal ex-wife Liz (Lisa Banes, who keeps her feet on the ground most of her time), his devoted long-time secretary Monica (a nicely acerbic Harriet Harris), the predatory Joanna Lyppiatt (Pamela Jane Gray), lovestruck ingenue Daphne (Holley Fain), and overenthusiastic young playwright Roland Maule (the hardworking if unrelenting Brooks Ashmanskas), plus not-always-helpful servants, Miss Erikson and Fred (Nancy E. Carroll and James Joseph O'Neil).

Buried within the pyrotechnics of his play, Coward does plant the subtextual suggestion that the always-performing Essendine is genuinely worn down by the burden he's placed on himself to be the unperturbed raconteur in black tie and silk smoking-jacket. If, however, that deeper aspect of Essendine's personality is not mined, then all that's on offer is the frantic comings-and-goings of exaggerated characters as Essendine paces among them, futilely attempting to calm himself down. And that gets old and perilously tedious before Coward concludes his boulevard comedy (in which he utilizes an almost identical ending to the one he had created years earlier for Private Lives).

Martin's treatment unfolds on set designer Alexander Dodge's spectacular two-story Art Deco drawing-room, while never-fail costume designer Jane Greenwood smartly outfits the cast in late-1930's-early-1940's costumes, including a spectacular gown for Gray that, all thin black-and-white chevrons, looks like a piece of moving optical art.

Garber not only shows off his acting chops, but his musical ones as well in his lovely second-act opening of Coward's "World Weary" at the onstage piano. It's too bad Martin doesn't optimize how sincerely Essendine means the sentiment.


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