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PRESENT LAUGHTER reviewed in NY Times


January 22, 2010


Shades of Coward, Robed in Silk and Self-Devotion


Should Bergdorf Goodman experience a sudden run on velvet smoking jackets and silk pajamas, blame Victor Garber, the debonair star of the Roundabout Theater Company revival of “Present Laughter,” Noël Coward’s valentine to the maddening, marvelous world of the theater and to his own maddening, marvelous self.

In this frothy production, which opened Thursday night at the American Airlines Theater, the stage stalwart Mr. Garber, who has lately traded the boards for a checkbook-swelling stay in Hollywood, eases back onto Broadway as if slipping into a bubble bath, Champagne coupe in hand. As a vehicle for former matinee idols on the wrong side of 40, “Present Laughter” is ideal, a purring vintage Daimler that simply requires a magnetic actor of finely honed comic gifts to work its considerable charms. Mr. Garber fits the role as neatly as those silk pajamas fit him.

The central character, Garry Essendine, the sun around whom the play’s various characters circle in wobbly orbit, is a West End star of the 1930s for whom the footlights truly never dim. To emerge from the bedroom for a cup of coffee is to make an entrance, and everyday conversation quickly rises to histrionic heights that leave amateurs gasping for air.

In the first act, after rising at the crack of noon, Garry swans down the swirling Deco staircase (what else?) of his sumptuous flat to play a turbulent love scene. (Alexander Dodge’s eye-popping set is a bit of a scene stealer itself.) Daphne Stillington (Holley Fain), the star-struck young lady who so unfortunately forgot her latchkey the evening before, requiring her to bunk down in Garry’s spare room, refuses to depart before the proper romantic poses are struck. So Garry must go into his dance without any rehearsal, dispensing disillusion with the grace of a lover presenting a dozen roses to his sweetheart.

“Listen, my dear, ” he softly but firmly intones. “It isn’t that I don’t love you.” Brief, tender pause. “I do.” Still more tender pause. “I knew it the first moment that I took you in my arms last night.”

Just as Daphne melts into a swoon, the ardor dries up as Garry introduces notes of nobility and self-sacrifice. “But I am not free like other men, to take happiness when it comes to them,” he says wistfully. “I belong to the public and my work.” Sob!

Garry, who knows his audience as he knows every incipient wrinkle on his forehead, is quickly unencumbered of Miss Stillington, this morning’s problem, but a host of other torments are soon assailing him. His assistant, Monica Reed, played with her usual cackling acidity by Harriet Harris, has piles of imploring mail from besotted fans he has charmed with the wave of a hand. His wife, Liz (an amiably wry Lisa Banes), whose aid is enlisted in ushering the teary Daphne to the door, has grown tired of Garry’s romantic nonsense and urges him to grow up. (They have long since parted as bed partners but are fast friends and colleagues.)

And some real trouble is brewing: a possible affair between one of Garry’s steadfast associates, Morris Dixon (Marc Vietor), and the femme fatale married to his producer, Henry Lyppiatt (Richard Poe). The sudden arrival of Roland Maule (Brooks Ashmanskas), an eccentric young playwright whom Garry has inadvertently encouraged, threatens to upend the day entirely, making plans for the impending six-week tour of Africa that much harder to complete.

These complications are interesting only insofar as they inspire tirades of petulant self-pity, waspish anger and antic anxiety on the part of Garry, all delivered in the kind of crisp, wit-laced, elegant dialogue for which we still treasure Coward, who wrote the role (in 1939) as an affectionate send-up of himself and played it on tour in 1942 and subsequently in London and America. (Previous Broadway incarnations have starred Clifton Webb, George C. Scott and most recently Frank Langella.)

Mr. Garber surfs these heady waters with lithe dexterity. An impeccable English accent allows him to alter the rhythms and cadences of Garry’s outbursts to maximum comic effect. As Garry moves effortlessly from role to role — from the paternal lover to the cross but affectionate boss to the prickly husband — Mr. Garber makes subtly clear the delight he takes in playing each to the hilt.

To read the full review, click here:  http://theater.nytimes.com/2010/01/22/theater/reviews/22present.html?ref=theater

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