Thursday, January 21, 2010

Present Laughter

photo: Joan Marcus

More than any other playwright save perhaps Shakespeare, the works of Noel Coward need to be executed precisely in order to be fully enjoyed. Largely plotless and populated with characters so preening and entitled that they're liable to make your skin crawl, productions of his comedies of manners rely heavily on actors who understand the cadences of his language and directors skilled enough to let the humor come from a solid reading of the text, rather than a pure reliance on pratfalls and slamming doors. Unfortunately, Roundabout Theatre Company's new production of Present Laughter (first seen at Boston's Huntington Theatre in 2007) is a misfire in nearly every conceivable way. Victor Garber, who is usually drier than Bombay Sapphire, is oddly frenetic as Garry Essendine, a stage actor and London playboy on the cusp of realizing that his youth is behind him. He intones his lines as if performing in a Shakespearean tragedy, while offering no feeling for either the wit or the remorse in the text. This approach feels out of place in Nicholas Martin's slick physical production, which would appear to call for a most straightforward rending of Essendine's post-midlife crisis. The supporting cast offers Garber no real support: From Brooks Ashmankas' embarrassing and anachronistic young playwright to the ingratiating Lisa Banes and Pamela Jane Gray as the women in Essendine's life, each performer seems to be overacting in their own terrible play. Only Harriet Harris' loyal secretary manages to delight, but it isn't enough. Present Laughter is an arduous evening with nary a laugh to be had.

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