Friday, January 22, 2010

Present Laughter


By Noel Coward; Directed by Nicholas Martin. Through March 21

There's a lot of like-- and even a smattering of admiration-- but very little love in the crop of reviews of Nicholas Martin's Broadway remount of his Huntington production of Present Laughter, starring Victor Garber. Speaking of Garber, reviewers are positively dripping with self-loathing and gratitude that he's returned from a sojurn in Hollywood making money, with many reviewers making it seem as if Garber deserves the Congressional Medal of Honor for taking a cushy gig at Roundabout. Martin's straight-up production gets largely high marks, with the most controversial element being Brooks Ashmanskas performance as Roland Maule. The critics are split, one camp praising his over the top antics, one camp saying he ruins the show and a third camp (occupied solely by David Cote) who argue that Ashmanskas' performance makes clear how anemically tasteful Martin's direction is in the first place.

Associated Press A
(Michael Kuchwara) It's not easy maintaining the fizz in the frenzy known as "Present Laughter," Noel Coward's delightfully frantic comedy about a narcissistic actor and the chaos that inevitably erupts in his posh London household.

Village Voice A-
(Michael Feingold) In recent decades, stars of gigantic charisma (George C. Scott) or flamboyance (Frank Langella) have seized on the showy opportunities inherent in Garry's dilemma, but the play's elegant balance of neatly piled successive crises really only comes through when played by a more quietly glowing charmer like Garber. With help from Harriet Harris, acidulating sweetly as Garry's loyal secretary, and Lisa Banes, spreading adorable rue as his estranged but loyal wife, Martin keeps Garber spinning gracefully—style-setter Garry couldn't spin any other way—through the accelerating action. Only Ashmanskas, as the young loon, skillfully but unappealingly makes his craziness seem altogether too real in which everything needs to be touched lightly.

New York Magazine A-
(Scott Brown) Victor Garber, God bless him, can wear the daylights out of a dressing gown. He can even make an old one look...well, not new, exactly, but damned comfortable. And "comfortable" is the word that pops immediately into mind after experiencing the gentle, genial charms of the Roundabout's Present Laughter, a comedy about aging ungracefully, the silken pleasures of decompensation, and the people we choose to grow old with, to the extent that we have any choice in the matter. Under the steady, only occasionally leaden hand of veteran comedy director Nicholas Martin, this faultlessly acted, psychologically pristine, almost excessively grounded production fuses Noël Coward's most bohemian themes—the insupportable nature of marriage, the delicious hypocrisies of polite society—with his most boulevard instincts. It's a sex farce that dismantles its own flamboyance before our eyes and ends up feeling strangely, unaccountably plausible. Laughter is indeed present throughout, but it's a kind of background radiation.

NY Daily News B+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) As the mirror-mad matinee idol, Broadway veteran Victor Garber, famous for films (he went down with the ship in "Titanic") and TV (he shot from the hip on "Alias") is droll and appealing. His Garry is as self-aware as he is self-obsessed. Sure, he sighs, groans and even sings about craving solitude, but we know he knows that he instantly wilts when he's not being coddled or cuddled. A cast of characters is on hand to do that. Harriet Harris is hilarious as Monica, Garry's secretary and sometime dragon-lady gatekeeper; Lisa Banes lends sophisticated calm as his not-quite-ex-wife, Liz, and Pamela Jane Gray plays Joanne, an oversexed omnivore who makes every word from her mouth, especially "latchkey," sound fabulously filthy.

New York Times B+
(Charles Isherwood) In this frothy production, which opened Thursday night at the American Airlines Theater, the stage stalwart Mr. Garber, who has lately traded the boards for a checkbook-swelling stay in Hollywood, eases back onto Broadway as if slipping into a bubble bath, Champagne coupe in hand. As a vehicle for former matinee idols on the wrong side of 40, “Present Laughter” is ideal, a purring vintage Daimler that simply requires a magnetic actor of finely honed comic gifts to work its considerable charms. Mr. Garber fits the role as neatly as those silk pajamas fit him.

TalkinBroadway B+
(Matthew Murray) Martin and Garber, who collaborated on this play in 2007 at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, elegantly modulate the way Garry navigates all this, as well as the slow-burn immolation he experiences as his compartmentalized affairs (in every sense of the word) begin to consume the world. If the first act could step a bit more spryly, the second and third unfold with the precise pacing and precision of a military invasion. Even the stately beauty of Alexander Dodge’s decadent, two-level set increasingly resembles a shadowy prison, and Jane Greenwood’s glimmering upper-crust costumes straitjackets, as Garry realizes he’s letting the inmates run his own personal asylum.

Financial Times B
(Brendan Lemon) Victor Garber, who portrays Garry in the current staging, is 60. Lost to Los Angeles and television salaries for the past decade, Garber makes a welcome return to Broadway. Gliding exasperatedly across Alexander Dodge’s deco set and inhabiting Jane Greenwood’s elegant dressing gowns, Garber wisely avoids making Coward ostentatiously sophisticated. Coward’s style seemed hopelessly outmoded in the 1950s and ’60s, but now his dialogue sounds less sophisticated than stilted. The revival of sophistication on television (Frasier, Stewie on Family Guy) makes Present Laughter seem laboured: it can take an eternity, verbally, to set up a joke.

Variety B
(David Rooney) The silk dressing gowns and suave airs of aging matinee idol Garry Essendine are a fine fit for Victor Garber in "Present Laughter," as are the quietly melancholy undertones of a charming but vain peacock, too self-absorbed and infantile to appreciate the pleasures life affords him. He's housed in the swankiest of London apartments in Nicholas Martin's elegant production, with its gorgeous, honey-toned deco wall treatments and cascading chandeliers, dominated by a portrait of Garry as Hamlet that leaves no doubt as to who's the center of attention. But those assets can't keep a certain windy fatigue from creeping into Noel Coward's comedy.

Wall Street Journal B
(Terry Teachout) If you've never seen "Present Laughter," go and enjoy yourself: It's a comic gem, and this production is much better than none at all. The set alone, an Art Deco orgy designed by Alexander Dodge, is almost worth the price of admission. If you know the play at all well, though, you won't need to be told what Messrs. Martin, Garber and Ashmanskas are getting wrong, and why it matters.

TheaterMania C+
(David Finkle) For the Roundabout Theatre's current revival, with suave-as-a-pair-of-kid-gloves Victor Garber in the focal role, director Nicholas Martin has ladled on the acting pyrotechnics. Out to pull maximum yuks from the self-deprecating Coward lines, the ensemble does everything short of cartwheels to achieve the sought-after results; but too often, the cast gives the impression they're at a noisy party where they have to exert extra effort just to be heard.

The Faster Times C-
(Jonathan Mandell) Present Laughter certainly had its moments, but Garber is too placid a presence to have kept my interest through a play that lasts 150 minutes over three acts, and while he’s attractive, it seems closer to a Woody Allen fantasy sequence than a Noel Coward parlor comedy that these beautiful women decades younger are swooning from love for him. Still, Garber’s steadiness is a welcome contrast to some odd and unsuccessful efforts to pump up the energy, most noticeably Brooks Ashmanskas, who plays a beseeching playwright in one of the most eccentric performances I have ever seen on Broadway — a herky-jerky whirling dervish who seems imported from the fringe festival. The women fare better, especially Harriet Harris as the wise-cracking secretary, Lisa Banes as his wife Liz and Pamela Jane Gray as the predatory wife of his producer (she is helped along by some eye-catching outfits by costume designer Jane Greenwood).

Time Out New York C-
(David Cote) Alas, this overly polite production’s strengths vanish when Maule literally bounces onstage. Too old for the role (we must intuit that Maule lies about his age), Ashmanskas does endless variations on the twitchy, self-adulating popinjay; somehow he manages to smuggle a grand jété into a stage cross. Ashmanskas doesn’t just steal the show; he locks it in a basement dungeon shackled to the wall and impregnates it repeatedly over 17 years. Such a power imbalance underscores Garber’s and the production’s general lack of comic nerve. Remedying that would require taking this splendidly funny play much more seriously.

New Jersey News Room C-
(Michael Sommers) Usually more dithering than dazzling in manner as Garry, the gray-headed Garber amiably goes along for the ride instead of driving the comedy as a genuine star would and should. This lack of high voltage makes most of the characters appear a bit dim since they are illuminated by Garry's brilliant personage.

NYPost D+
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) The Roundabout's revival of "Present Laughter" that opened last night hits all of these targets -- Alexander Dodge's lavish deco decor, in particular, gets applause -- and yet it almost never feels right. We're a far cry from "Brief Encounter," the warm-hearted British import that recently proved that one can be both innovative and true to Coward...The performances are fun to watch -- and Garber does have a smooth charm -- except that they belong to different shows.

Bloomberg D
(John Simon) The fine actor Victor Garber is miscast in the Roundabout’s Broadway revival. His problems are age (60 for Coward’s called- for 44), looks (an ingenuous, slightly corn-fed countenance) and a basic bland quality. He toils visibly at being bitchy, rather than having histrionic unnaturalness come naturally. Alexander Dodge, an expert in opulent stage design, provides a sumptuous Art Deco set, a trifle too lavish even for a stage star’s “studio” that Coward calls for. It overpowers a production based by director Nicholas Martin on his 2007, more modest Boston mounting.

North D
(Robert Feldberg) The revival of Noël Coward's "Present Laughter," which opened Thursday night at the American Airlines Theatre, is like a glass of champagne that's been sitting too long: Except for a few lonely little bubbles, there's no fizz. Instead of being a buoyant comic romp, the 1942 play slogs along without much verve or energy. It's frequently revived – it was previously done on Broadway in the 1980s and '90s — but its slightness has never been made more evident.

On Off Broadway D
(Matt Windman) While the play has potential to still pack a punch, Nicholas Martin's production is slow, flat, fake and devoid of any concept or inspiration. This leaves most of his cast desperately scrambling to mug as much as possible.

Backstage D
(Erik Haagensen) This "Present Laughter" is hyped and coarsened, as if Martin doesn't trust American audiences to get Coward's very English humor. An immediate warning is set designer Alexander Dodge's far-too-glamorous Art Deco apartment. Yes, Essendine is a matinee idol of the British stage, but as an upper-class Brit of a certain social standing, it's unlikely he'd be given to such opulent excess, particularly in the late 1930s after the Depression and with the war clouds gathering in Europe. Martin also overrides Coward's sophisticated comic rhythms, encouraging his cast to push as if driving a second-tier Neil Simon comedy. The show is shot through with an American idea of Englishness.

USA Today D
Stage and screen veteran Victor Garber is a dapper Garry, while Harriet Harris, another proven favorite, is a predictable hit as his seen-it-all secretary. Richard Poe, Marc Vietor and Lisa Banes are sturdy, if hardly revelatory, as other members of Garry's protective posse. The interlopers are more self-serving and irritating, particularly as represented here. Pamela Jane Gray's droning femme fatale and Brooks Ashmanskas' flamboyantly idiotic writer/stalker are especially grating. Little wonder that Garry seems exhausted by the end. "I'm sick to death of being stuffed with everybody's confidences," he tells his cohorts. Alas, he has no choice but to endure them. You, however, can avoid this Laughter altogether.

AP A 13; NYMAG A- 12; VV A-12; NYDN B+ 11; NYT B+ 11; TB B+ 11; FT B 10; WSJ B 10; TM C+ 8; TFT C- 6; TONY C- 6; NJNR C- 6; NYP D+ 5; BBD D 4; USA D 4; OOB D 4; BS D 4; TOTAL: 137/17 8.05 (C+)

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