Present Laughter: St. James Theatre 22 March 2017

This is making me a little twitchy but I thought I’d write up the three plays I saw recently before I continue writing up the concerts I saw this year. The first one is Noël Coward’s Present Laughter at the St. James Theatre starring Kevin Kline. I love both Coward and Kline and this was a play I wasn’t overly familiar with so I thought this could be fun. And it was.

Kline is perfectly cast as Gary Essendine, an aging theater star, who is both self-absorbed and self-aware and always on. He surrounds himself with people who can take care of him, call him on his shit, and get him out of trouble. There’s his always dependable estranged wife Liz Essendine played spot on by Kate Burton (who played the ingénue in an earlier revival); his acerbic secretary Monica Reed, who Kristine Nielsen turned into a comic tour de force; his producer Henry Lyppiatt played by Peter Francis James, a well-known character actor; and his director Morris Dixon played by Reg Rogers, who specializes in highly neurotic characters and does his thing here.

The other actors are the very very funny household help – Matt Bittner as Fred, Garry’s valet, who in his Broadway debut seems like an old pro and Ellen Harvey as the maid Miss Erikson, who is called eccentric throughout the play but we never actually see her eccentricity until the last act. Cobie Smulders is Joanna Lyppiatt, Henry’s wife and a seductress. It’s also her Broadway debut and she’s surprisingly good. Tedra Millan as Daphne Stillington in her Broadway debut is the bright-eyed ingénue, who believes she’s in love with Garry. Bhavesh Patel does a very funny turn as Roland Maule, the would-be writer that Garry cannot get rid of. And Sandra Shipley has a small role as Lady Saltburn, Daphne’s aunt, who thinks that she’s introducing Daphne to Garry for the first time.

When I got to the mezzanine for the Wednesday matinee the usher asked if I was alone and then directed to me to a seat in the third row of the front mezzanine. My ticket was for a seat in the back of the rear mezzanine. It was a shame that the theater wasn’t full but it meant that I had a wonderful view of the stage. There were a lot of white-haired ladies in their mink coats around me.

As soon as the curtain opened and before anyone appeared there was loud applause for the stage set. It is Garry’s studio in London and the year is 1939. There’s a door on the left that leads to a spare bedroom and a door on the right for his office. In front is a sofa with some newspapers underneath and to the side a fainting couch with a woman’s gown laying across it. A fireplace to the left and one step up is a piano and a small bar. Next to that is a swinging door leading into the kitchen. The stairs come down into the middle of the room and upstairs is Garry’s bedroom. Next to the stairs is a narrow hallway to the front door. I’ve never been in the studio of a popular theater star in 1939 but I imagine that this is exactly what it would look like. The costumes were also beautiful – gorgeous gowns and smart suits both for the women and men. You could feel the richness of the silk pajamas and dressing gowns.

The play showcases Coward’s wonderful language, who played Garry in the original production and it’s thought to be semi-autobiographical. Of course, the lovers are all women in the play but you can imagine Coward winking at the audience.

Garry is trying to get ready for an upcoming tour in Africa but his involvement with women he should not be involved with keeps getting in the way and he has to call on Liz to help him more than once. The play borders on farce with doors opening and closing and people hiding. Joanna even says that she feels like she’s in a French farce. There are other funny bits of business like Garry looking into any mirror he passes, especially the mirror in the front hallway whenever he answers the doorbell. And when Joanna makes a dramatic departure, none of the men notice because they’re busy discussing what Garry considers an unsuitable theater for his upcoming New York performance. By the end of Act II confessions are made and real love wins out.

The creative team did a wonderful job. Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel, set designer David Zinn, costume designer Susan Hilferty, lighting designer Justin Townsend, sound designer Fitz Patton, hair designer Josh Marquette, and dialect coach Stephen Gabis all did marvelous work.

As an aside, I saw Joe Papp’s musical version of Two Gentlemen of Verona starring Raul Julia and Clifton Davis in that same theater – probably in 1972. It also starred Jonelle Allen and Jose Perez. And Stockard Channing (in her Broadway debut) and Jeff Goldblum were in the chorus. The two I remember are Julia and Perez because it was such a treat to see Latino actors on stage and performing Shakespeare. Despite the time and place of the play, Present Laughter also did some color-blind casting and I was happy to see that.

“What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure;
In delay there lies no plenty;
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty!
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.”
— William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night


By Carene Lydia Lopez