Somewhat Informed: Zodrow’s Performing Arts Column; “Present Laughter” is a Delightful Distraction

Somewhat Informed: Zodrow’s Performing Arts Column; “Present Laughter” is a Delightful Distraction

Noël Coward’s “Present Laughter” is a British comedy which originally opened in 1942. Almost 80 years later, PBS is airing a production featuring Kevin Kline as protagonist Garry Essendine, a wealthy and successful star of the stage, who finds himself enmeshed in a web of scandalous affairs, one-night stands and broken hearts, and has to manipulate his way out of awkward confrontations about his immature behavior. 

Kline took home a Tony for his performance, and after watching the PBS production, it is not difficult to see why. He is a force to behold on stage. It is impossible to tell whether Essendine is genuine or attempting to deceive his verbal sparring partners. While the audience may laugh at the traps that the cast falls into, the secret brilliance of the production is Essendine’s ability to string the audience along as well. 

Kate Burton, who plays Liz Essendine (Gary’s estranged wife) is just as sharp, and gains the immediate favor of the audience. From start to finish, the 2017 production is cast nearly perfectly and the leads are remarkably skilled at making an eighty year old play feel fresh. However, their hard work can only pull so much weight. 

“Present Laughter” is a vapid affair. The comedy is witty but shallow, and the jokes often dip into territory that makes it plainly clear that the play was written by a racist old British playwright in the late 1930s. For example, the plot revolves around Essendine preparing for a theater tour through Africa, which is caricatured as a desert wasteland. 

Whether the play can be forgiven for it’s antiquated racial politics is up for debate, but director Moritz von Stuelpnagel does a commendable job of not attempting to steer around them. While many productions of an old play can turn the entire production team into apologists for problematic writing, Stuelpnagel does not cut problematic lines that he could easily have omitted. The audience gets to laugh through spectacularly funny dialogue, but have to sit with the discomfort of knowing that the idle rich in Britain cannot evade the stain of colonialism. 

However, there is a reason the play is still being produced. The show is deliciously hammy and allows it’s actors to stretch their comedic chops. Theater has the power to create political statements, to force the audience members to reflect upon their own moral failings, and to impact generations. 

“Present Laughter” does not achieve any of these aforementioned distinctions, but that is precisely why it is still such a joy to watch. Theatergoers should always pursue experiences that challenge them, but sometimes the indulgence of the spotlight is just too fun to make a profound statement. The show succeeds at knowing what it is: a witty but flawed comedy that is at it’s best when the performers are having fun. Modern theater has a tendency to value a certain kind of dramatic self-flagellation from actors. This show expects it’s actors to have impeccable comedic timing and the ability to retain copious amounts of dialogue, but the actors still have a good time, and the joy is infectious. 

Where the production falters is in the side cast. Reg Rogers plays Morris Dixon, a professional collaborator and friend of Gary Essendine. Rogers is supposed to be portraying a dopey figure, but he appears so drunk and daft on stage it distracts from the comedy, leaving Klien to do the heavy lifting in scenes where  the two are arguing. Bhavesh Patel plays a crazed admirer of Essendine and also gives a performance that is far too cartoonish. It should be noted that these flaws may not have been noticeable if I had seen the play live. Actors are trained to play to the back of the room, and as a viewer of a professionally recorded performance, I was in the best seat in the house. A different context might have shed a more flattering light on the performances of the minor characters, but in this case Rogers and Patel fell flat. 

The rest of the cast is wonderful, and all embrace their roles with impressive vigor. “Present Laughter” is an imperfect play, but it is worth viewing in some free time. It is a showcase of great actors playing in an open sandbox that will not make an indelible impact on your psyche, but not every play needs to. If you are in need of a good laugh, look no further than “Present Laughter.”