Present Laughter by Noel Coward
St. James Theatre on Broadway
BS Rating: B-
Show-Score Rating: 75
The current production of “Present Laughter” might more appropriately be titled “Past Laughter.” That observation is not so much a criticism of the play or its ability to entertain an audience 75 years after its premiere. It is a reference to the play’s style and it’s place in the evolution of what used to be called “sitting room comedies.” Coward wrote the play at the out-break of the Second World War and toured it with himself in the lead role for many years. It has been revived on both sides of the Atlantic regularly since Coward has yielded the central part to the likes of Albert Finney, Peter O’Toole, Ian McKellen, Frank Langella, and George C. Scott. But a successful production of this type of play relies on an understanding of its essential structure.
The sitting room comedies of the 1920s to 1950 had a fairly common organization. The first act introduces a collection of characters, usually with exaggerated personalities that make their relationship to each other delightfully complicated, although not necessarily terribly realistic. The initial act is peppered with humorous asides, cultural sniggers, and giggles at each character’s exaggerated behaviors. The real laughter occurs in the second act, when the twists of the plot cause the characters to be caught in awkward circumstances and compromised situations, usually in a sort of farcical format with slamming doors and mismatched pairs. The final act is a classic denouement where the various lovers are reunited and the plot is neatly wrapped up. That is certainly the model for “Present Laughter.”
Coward was a master of this format and this play has the added fun of portraying an over-the-hill matinee idol who cannot bring himself to see himself, except to fix his hair in the mirror. He is a man of the T-H-E-A-T-R-E. Gathered around him is a collection of servants, colleagues and hangers-on who are themselves exaggerated stereotypes. Each role gives the actor impersonating these stock characters the opportunity to play big and not worry about credibility. As Coward himself said, the play “was written with the sensible object of providing me with a bravura part.”
Occupying the role of the matinee idol, Garry, in this production is Kevin Kline, an actor known for making bravo bravura. He does not disappoint. He has that special ability to mug deliciously and he uses it with style throughout the show. However, he frequently takes his license to over-act a bit too far, making his character into a cartoon that eventually wears thin for the audience and distracts from the little bits of plot that Coward uses to structure the comic interchanges. This is especially true in the first act as he encounters each of the ten characters who will make the second act revelations so enjoyable. By contrast, the always delightful Kristine Nielsen shows exactly how to use a distorted facial expression or the turn of a phrase to make her character so enjoyable that we miss her presence in the final resolution of the play – strange that Mr. Coward had her exit before everything is resolved since she is the secretarial organizer of the main character’s life. Kate Burton, as Garry’s separated but faithful wife, Liz, plays the straight-woman with class. She is the voice of reason and much of the humor bounces off her resolute sense of order. All of the remaining cast adopts Kline’s over-the-top style, usually quite effectively since they are not on stage long enough for the audience to tire of their antics.
The main problem in this production, and the reason it fails to make its “present laughter” evoke as much joy as it did in the past, is its format. Originally, the play was written in the classic three-act structure. Bowing to the resistance of contemporary audiences to sit in a theatre for three hours, director Moritz von Stuelpnagel, has combined Act 1 with the first scene from Act 2, making the new first act an hour and twenty minutes long. Given that all of this material in the new first act is the precursor to the rollicking fun of the second half of the original Act 2, these first 80 minutes seem to go on forever with only occasional humor and seemingly endless mugging. The new second act delivers the truly hysterical farce that is at the core of this play’s style. However, combining that uproariously funny sequence of events with the rather low key reconciliation that was previously Act 3, makes the play’s finale seem like an unsatisfying tag-line rather than the inevitable ending for a classic well-made play.
Noel Coward knew what he was doing in structuring his three-act comedy. His audience also knew what he was doing. Contemporary audiences occasionally don’t balk at spending three hours in the theatre, but they are not accustomed to the classic three-act structure. For some inexplicable reason, three hours are OK, but three acts are not. There are certainly successful productions that carefully restructure the acts in classic plays from earlier periods whether it be Chekov or Shakespeare. But a play has a rhythm and the audience must be in sync with that rhythm. This production of “Present Laughter” changes that tempo and, in the process, makes us wish we could experience this classic sitting room comedy as it was intended to unfold in the past.