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May 24, 2017

Present Laughter

Cobie Smulders and Kevin Kline (Joan Marcus)

By Anita Gates

Every woman in London, it seems, wants to sleep with Garry Essendine. He is an aging stage actor with an ego as big as Buckingham Palace, so that makes perfect sense to him. And to Noël Coward, who created him back in 1939, then played the role for wartime audiences all over England. And to Kevin Kline, who portrays Garry in this spring’s saucy and adorable revival of “Present Laughter” at the St. James Theater.

“Present Laughter” is an old-fashioned kind of play in that it takes place on one set: Garry’s luxurious duplex apartment (scenic design by David Zinn), which doubles as his home office. It  has a terribly convenient “spare room” downstairs, where young ladies can claim to have spent the night when it’s time for the chain-smoking maid to serve the morning coffee. (For some reason, women that Garry meets during festive evenings are always losing their “latch key,” giving them no recourse but to go home with him.)

There is, I suppose, a sort of plot: Garry and his entourage (who include his secretary and his contentedly estranged wife) are organizing a forthcoming theater tour in Africa. An ambitious young playwright is desperately trying to get his attention. A dippy debutante believes, after one night, that Garry is in love with her. And his best friend’s wife has suddenly realized that she and Garry ought to be closer, much closer. Lies must be told. Secrets must be kept. But it’s all really about the joy of spending time with this man, who thinks all the world’s a mirror and has been acting for so long that he can’t stop, even in the most intimate situations.

Kline is dashing, as pretty much everyone knew he would be. The man has two Tony Awards already (for “The Pirates of Penzance” and “On the Twentieth Century”) and is nominated for another for this performance, an expert blend of the physical and the cerebral. O.K., Garry is supposed to have just turned 40 (Coward was in his early 40s when he played him), and Kline is 69. But, hey, people live a lot longer now.

It’s no surprise either that Kate Burton is outstanding as the estranged wife, Liz, who still loves her spouse -- in her fashion -- but is terribly, terribly glad they don’t live together anymore. (Did you know that Burton made her Broadway debut in 1982 in a Broadway revival of “Present Laughter”? She played Daphne Stillington, the debutante, opposite George C. Scott.)

Dedicated theatergoers know Kristine Nielsen’s work (she earned a Tony nomination for “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” a couple of years ago), so her masterly performance as the secretary is just what we’d expect.

The pleasant surprise is Cobie Smulders, best known to the world at large as one of the personable stars of the sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” in which she played a single, hockey-loving Canadian cable-TV newswoman with an emotional circle of friends. It’s lovely to see how easily she slips into a slinky 1930s gown (the glamorous period costumes are by Susan Hilferty) and becomes a woman of another, very different time and place, who knows exactly how to handle the era she finds herself in. Smulders plays Joanna Lyppiatt, the best friend’s wife.

So what does an evening with Mr. Essendine and his chic circle get you? The Coward wit, of course. When Liz comments to another character, “Miss Erikson looked more peculiar than ever this morning. Is her spiritualism getting worse?,” we can see that  Garry married her for more than her good looks. But perhaps equally important is the feeling of certain superiority that any audience member can enjoy. Sure, maybe when there’s a crisis at work, all you can think about is how it’s going to affect you, personally, not your boss or your colleagues. Sure, you glance at your reflection in the mirror more often than you should, checking your hair or just the cut of your jib. But for heaven’s sake, you’re nowhere near as self-centered as Garry. 

He’s a clever cad, too. When Daphne (Tedra Millan), crushed that Garry has announced he can’t see her again, reminds him that he’d said last night that he would never let her go, he has a ready answer. “I never shall let you go,” he reassures her. “You will be here in my heart forever.” 

St. James Theater, 246 West 44th Street, Limited run; closes on July 2.

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