A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Garry Essendine's Act 1 putdown of the pompous young playwright Roland Maule is the sort of quote that reads well even out of context: "If you want to be a playwright. . ..go and get yourself a job as a butler in a repertory company, if they'll have you. Learn from the ground up how plays are constructed and what is actable and what is not. Then sit down and write at least twenty plays one after the other, and if you can manage to get the twenty-first produced for a Sunday night performance, you'll be damned lucky!" As delivered by Frank Langella, the latest Garry Essendine to arrive on Broadway, those words fairly explode with his impatience.
The above quote also sums up the enduring strength of this and Coward's other plays. They are the products of a master of craftsmanship. Each scene builds on the one before, each player becomes a real person and, most importantly, the dialogue sparkles with wit. No, there's nothing in this or any other Coward play to "help people or make them think." (contrary to Roland Maule who declares that laughter and amusement should be secondary to social significance in the theater). But as one intrepid Coward fan recently told us "what's so insignificant about wit and laughter in an age weighed down by significant issues?"
Because Coward wrote this play for and about himself, many actors have had difficulty creating their own Essendines without losing the sophistication and vivacity of the Coward spirit. Frank Langella has succeeded on all counts. His Garry is the ultimate self-absorbed, somewhat desperately aging, ever seduceable-seducing matinee idol.
Under Scott Elliot's much debated direction, he even allows us to glimpse at least the top layer beneath the silk-robed veneer of the sophisticated Coward-ian hero.
Coward might have bristled at some of the added shtick— like having Garry, during one of his many sessions with the mirror, pull up his pajama top to frown at a naked expanse of middle-aged midriff. Langella inspects his exposed middle as naturally as he tugs at the sash of his silk robe and with the same over-emotional despair with which he views his thinning hair.
So there you have two major reasons to enjoy this new Present Laughter: Langella's firm grasp on Coward's wit and charm and Coward's indisputable genius at constructing a drawing room comedy that moves briskly from beginning to end, compensating for its complete lack of substance with generous servings of quotable lines.
Add to the list of this production's pleasures two other performance gems— Lisa Emery as Monica his secretary and Allison Janney as his wife— and you can forgive some of the less stellar interpretations of major an minor parts (the glamorous Joanna in the former; Henry and Morris the business manager and accountant). These two men are too cartoonish and Joanna does not come across nearly as sexually irresistible as she looks. (A look at the picture on page 356 of the My Life with Noël Coward which shows one of Coward's favorite actresses, Judy Campbell, underscores this. Tim Hopper's Roland Maule is very good indeed and he brings off the superfluous frontal nudity (more on that below) with the same casual aplomb as Langella's chest-baring bit.
Stellar performances or not, everyone looks great in Ann Roth's knock-out costumes. The array of silly little hats with feathers and dresses with matching coats might just stir a revival on Fashion Avenue. All this finery, is appropriately set in Derek McLane's lavish and elegant London townhouse.
With all the brouhaha about Scott Elliott's somewhat revisionist direction, a word about our view of his view. While his dithering with Coward's carefully wrought portrait of a man whose appeal oozes from carefully clothed charm and sophistication is not his finest hour, neither does it decimate the essence of the play. In Coward's own words it's all a matter of taste. "It can be vulgar, but it must never be embarrassing." The exposure of Essendine's bulging midriff, the flash of Roland Maule in the nude are more vulgar and superfluous than embarrassing.
Graham Payn, Coward's literary executor and author of our featured Coward memoir revew ), and has been quoted as not objecting a bit to Elliott's more below-the-subtext direction. Still, no one asked him whether he thought Coward himself would have enjoyed actually being on this particular stage. As stated before, we think not. The thing of it is, that this desire to literally expose some of his more uptight characters, is an Elliot thing as subtle sophistication is the essence of what Coward is all about. In Arthur Miller's The Run Down Mt. Morgan which Elliott directed during the 1996 summer season at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the main character's two wives drop their identical mink coats for matching bathing suit-bunny outfits. It worked much better in that present-day play than it does here. The only humor in the Maule unveiling is the follow-up moment of suspense it seeds...when everyone thinks Joanna is also going to drop her coat for her birthday suit.
The bared flesh and other touch-and-feel additions aside, the director keeps things moving at the necessary brisk pace. Being the assured director he is, one can't help wondering why he felt the need to add a Dachshund and overdo the mirror scenes as much as he did. Perhaps one shouldn't wonder, since it all kept the audience laugh meter at the top of the mark for the play's somewhat overlong three hours.