A Presidential 'Present Laughter'

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Noel Coward and Donald Trump. Now that’s a mouthful. Putting the two of them together in the same sentence is absolutely preposterous. Yet, as I watched Kevin Kline frolic in Coward’s demi-autobiographical romp, Present Laughter, at the St. James Theatre the other night, portraying Gary Essendine, Coward’s louche alter-ego, I found myself thinking (to my own consternation) of our freakishly over-self-indulged new President. Mr. Kline is masterful and hilarious at delineating Essendine’s endlessly exasperating appeal; his depraved luminescence, his recondite lechery, his princely petulance, his brazen bombast and, most of all, his infantile inability to take any ultimate responsibility for his actions.

Damn, I thought. Without Coward’s wit, world-weary wisdom and appetite for dressing gowns, Gary Essendine could very easily become Donald Trump.

In spite of such thoughts, Mr. Kline is too marvelously endearing and comedically entrancing to let the evening devolve into untoward Trumpian imaginings. Present Laughter is a wicked study in the allure of bad behavior and the expiation of grand gestures. It’s objective is escape, but also engagement, and it succeeds as a play and as a vehicle for the great gifts of Mr. Kline entirely on those terms.

Produced in 1942 but written by Coward in 1939 , Present Laughter unknowingly points the way toward Reality TV. A snapshot of a few frantic hours in the home life of a stage actor so god-awfully talented and charming he can just about get away with anything, Present Laughter’s characters are virtually all interpersonal satellites in Gary Essendine’s private orbit – his secretary, valet and cook, who have seen way more than they want to; his ex-wife, who won’t go away; his anxious producer; his sycophantic director; a young, interloping, playwright-acolyte dismissive of Essendine’s work but increasingly besotted with Essendine himself and, finally, two flittering female conquests exiled sequentially to Essendine’s poorly heated spare bedroom.

Would that the acting of this crew was in Mr. Kline’s class. The talent certainly is there, but the lot of them appear to have been instructed by director Moritz Von Stuelpnagel to mug in hyper-drive. The sole exception is Cobie Smulders as a socialite sexpot married to the producer but fixated on landing Essendine. Her seductress is not merely flesh but blood too, a full-blooded creation as richly acted and soulfully grounded as Mr. Kline’s Essendine. If she does not quite steal her big scene with him, she does match him with a deftness of touch that transcends present laughter.

Some years ago (35, Google tells me, dear Lord), I saw Present Laughter for the first time, in a production at Circle in the Square Theatre. I can recall absolutely nothing about the occasion but Nathan Lane, who was making his Broadway debut as the love-struck playwright. Google also informs me that George C. Scott actually starred as Gary Essendine and directed. I can’t even picture him. (Yes, it could be me). The unknown Nathan was so rivetingly, hilariously, nakedly, vulnerably, real in his adoring duress that seeing Present Laughter again, I could not believe how relatively small the playwright part actually is.

There is always more to Noel Coward than meets the eye. His farces are never merely farcical. As for his egomaniacs, there are always depths beneath their self-involved surfaces. Playing Coward light is, of course, hard to resist. Missing the depths, however, is only something we have to settle for in our Cowardly President. Our theater demands more. Blessedly, Noel Coward knew that and Kevin Kline really gets it.