Before sitting down to watch Present Laughter, Noel Coward’s semi-autobiographical play currently in performances at the American Airlines Theater, prepare yourself with a large dose of patience. This production, clocking in at two and a half hours, with two intermissions, is no doubt amusing, and entertaining. But It is also at times lengthy and tedious, with leaving one to ponder the following questions: Exactly how many hissy fits can a grow man have in one evening? What is Brooks Ashmanskas eating backstage that gives him such skills of levitation? And how many silk dressing gowns can one man own?
Coward’s play, written as a send-up of himself (he also originated the part of Gary onstage), centers around an aging actor and his tightly-knit circle of friends. Childlike, self-centered and inevitably overdramatic, Gary lives in an opulent Art-Deco apartment in London, with a doorbell and telephone that never stop ringing and an endless cycle of visitors and guests that include his secretary Monica, ex-wife Liz, his producer and the newly added and unwelcome addition of Daphne, a young and beautiful obsessive fan and Roland Maule, an overly energetic playwright who apparently possesses the skill to levitate.
Gary frequently complains of the numerous demands made on him and how he never has a moment to himself, but it is obvious that he cannot function without an audience and this surrogate family he has assembled cannot ever leave each other alone. Ever the actor, Gary is always performing; even emerging from his bedroom for a cup of coffee is a grand entrance that commands attention and recognition. He simply cannot be alone. In one of the few scenes where he is left onstage after a party ends, he appears lost and forlorn.
Gary’s necessity for attention inevitably invites unrest into his life and those of his tightly-knit circle of friends, especially when Maule (played in a scene-stealing performance by Ashmanskas) enters into his palatial home, leaping over furniture and almost injuring everyone he comes into contact with. (The running gag about an overly firm handshake maintains its amusement, despite it being slightly overplayed). But it is when Gary accepts the wife of one of his friends, who is also the mistress of another friend, into his own bedroom, that the chaos reaches its peak.
On paper, all sounds well with the production, and the dapper, droll part of Gary seems an ideal role for Garber, who fills out the silk pajamas and jackets perfectly. Gary’s droll humor, dry wit and childish temper tantrums are all well-executed, and Garber seems to be having such a fine time doing them that it almost seems impolite to criticize his performance. His performance of the song “World Weary” offers a welcome, albeit brief flash, of his singing talent as well.
Sadly, mistakes were made with the cast selections, and in a character-drive play like this, its success rests on the chemistry of the cast. As Joanna, the latent seductress of Gary, Pamela Jane Gray is far too stiff and practiced. Her seduction of him, which should feel passionate, feels leaden. Harriet Harris steals a few scenes as Gary’s long-suffering secretary, and Nancy E. Carroll brings some much-needed humor as Miss Erikson, Gary’s eccentric housekeeper. Thankfully, Lisa Banes truly shines as Gary’s wife, remarkably poised, witty and truly lovely. The casting of Ashmanskas as Maule leaves an unsettled feeling; he definitely steals many scenes with his antics, and brings a great deal of humor to the show. But his performance is on a different level than the rest of the cast, giving the performance a heavily uneven feeling, and leaving this critic feeling unsettled.
The set, however, is truly lovely, consisting of splashy, shiny, Art-Deco designs, complete with a grand staircase from which Gary can enter and leave. And he does so, quite grandly, indeed.