I’ve just learned what it takes to create an absolutely splendid revival of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter. Step 1: Cast Kevin Kline. Step 2: Hire a director whose name sounds like a punch line Coward might have considered – Moritz von Stuelpnagel. But not any Moritz will do. Find the one who helmed the equally hilarious but tonally rather different demon-possessed sock-puppet satire Hand to God. There are further details (create a rich, inviting design; surround Kline with a smashing cast), but the simple act of handing America’s greatest exemplar of comic suavity a role he was born to play is half the battle.
Not that Kline merely swans about in smoking jackets dispensing Coward’s lemony bon mots; he’s working up there, maintaining the patter’s merciless pace, reclining lengthwise over divans or tearing up and down the stairs in designer David Zinn’s elegant yet cozy living-room set. Kline just makes it look easy. And although he portrays stage egomaniac Garry Essendine, Kline is the very model of a star who lets his brilliance illuminate everyone around him.
And what a gorgeous constellation they form: empress of daffy confusion Kristine Nielsen as Garry’s put-upon secretary; archly amused Kate Burton as his not-quite-ex-wife; Reg Rogers in rolling bluster as a neurotic director; and Bhavesh Patel being genuinely creepy as the unhinged young playwright Roland Maule. I could go on, doling praise to Peter Francis James' dapper cuckold of a producer and Tedra Millan as the latest stage-struck girl drawn into Garry’s self-adoring orbit. And not only does TV star Cobie Smulders (How I Met Your Mother) smoulder in a silky evening gown, but her plummy accent has just the right overreach to it, marking her character as a determined social climber. (Kudos to dialect coach Stephen Gabis for steering each actor to just the right regional quirk, from Matt Bittner’s East London drawl to Sandra Shipley’s deadpan Swedish housekeeper.)
Von Stuelpnagel’s assured, high-definition staging serves the play and characters in a way the Roundabout’s abysmal 2010 production at the American Airlines Theatre did not. Then, Victor Garber’s bland Garry barely registered, but Kline enlivens each moment with palpable zest and impeccable style, arrogant brio shading into middle-aged insecurity with a twitch of his perfectly trimmed moustache. What other American actor combines his physical grace, his verbal precision and his flair for serious silliness? He must do more Coward, or share his secrets. If Kline can’t immediately commit to Private Lives and Blithe Spirit, or start his own acting school, we may simply resort to cloning.
David Cote is theater editor and chief drama critic of Time Out New York. He is also a playwright, lyricist and opera librettist.