The language of a Noel Coward play is its own character: unique, full of witticisms and often harboring a deeper truth hidden beneath elegant frivolity. “There’s something awfully sad about happiness, isn’t there?” successful stage actor Gary Essendine (Kevin Kline) asks a young ingénue, Daphne Stillington (Tedra Millan), after she spends the night in his lavishly appointed apartment. She laughs thinking it’s a joke and the audience does too for the most part, but as the women come and go and the entourage never leaves, there’s a dreariness that punctuates even the most uproarious jokes.
Named after a line from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night that highlights the fleeting nature of time, Present Laughter is a serious meditation on finding meaning in life that’s wrapped in a candy coating of farce. It’s the kind of show that has you grinning from ear-to-ear throughout and feeling the weight of its message in the coming hours, days and weeks. Like a great spirited cocktail party, there’s a sense of elation that propels the play seamlessly through its two-and-a-half hour running time. The easy yet absurdly lively touch of director Moritz Von Stuelpnagel, best known for the viscerally joyful black comedy Hand to God, helps keep the balance.
Coming off the box-off smash Beauty and the Beast, Kline, who exudes equal parts goof and grandeur, is perfectly suited to play the preening protagonist. He’s a natural at physical comedy while carefully avoiding the pitfalls of overacting. Essendine, who’s made a healthy fortune appearing in easily digestible mainstream fare, sees himself as a Lawrence Oliver instead of the easily replaceable matinee idol he is. There’s a poster from one of his many forgettable shows hanging on the door of his guest room, where young women like Daphne tend to spend the night when they’ve “forgotten their latchkey.” Set in London in 1939, all of the talk about sex exists in the world of innuendo. There is also no mention of the Nazis even though it’s the middle of World War II. In just a year, the Third Reich would be incessantly bombing the city, but Essendine’s world is quite small.
For much of the time we spend with him, he’s preparing for a trip to Africa, one that will require a towering amount of luggage, but don’t expect it to widen his worldview. He appears to have few interests outside his career and bedding women who are enamored by him. Adulation has become his drug of choice, and it is a potent one, so it’s particularly jarring when a very strange aspiring playwright, Roland Maule (Bhavesh Patel), unleashes a tirade of criticism on Essendine. Roland’s also fascinated by him but in a creepy stalker kind of way.
A quote from Coward in the program encapsulates his view of humanity: “Then, with sudden desolation, I knew that the destiny of the human race was shaped neither by politicians nor dictators, but by its own inadequacy…and that it had no right whatever to demand and expect peace on earth until it had proved itself to be deserving of it.”
Starring: Kevin Kline, Kate Burton, Kristine Nielsen, Cobie Smulders and Bhavesh Patel
Written by: Noel Coward
Directed by: Moritz von Stuelpnagel
Through: July 2 at the St. James Theatre