PRESENT LAUGHTER: Victor Garber’s Garry Essendine is every bit as irresistible as Garry thinks he is.
Youth may be “a stuff will not endure,” but Noël Coward’s Present Laughter — which takes its title from the Shakespearean ditty that tells us so — certainly does. For egotistic piffle, the play has the shelf life and the sparkle of mica — and as proof, there’s the splendid Huntington Theatre Company revival (at Boston University Theatre through June 17), which is helmed by artistic director Nicholas Martin and stars four-time Tony nominee and Alias actor Victor Garber. Written in 1939 but put aside while Coward did World War II time as an entertainer and a spy, the semi-autobiographical comedy has as its vain, self-absorbed, overdramatic, yet lovable center aging matinee idol Garry Essendine: James Tyrone if he had flowed from the pen of Noël Coward rather than Eugene O’Neill. Swanning about his lavish 1930s London flat in a series of silk dressing gowns while associates, factotums, hangers-on, and just plain pick-ups bow and bustle, the flamboyant, put-upon, petulant charmer is an actor’s dream, and Garber is living it big-time, combining the panache of a Barrymore with the broad-comic chops of a Marx Brother. Even at two hours and 40 minutes (including intermissions), this wacky yet elegant show flies by like the vintage ephemera it is.
Was the theater world ever so glamorous as to produce a Garry Essendine, all ascot and ego and frivolous amour, convinced to his core that all the world’s a stage and he its only star? Certainly the scuffle for arts funding seems far from the fore at the Huntington, where Garber’s Essendine flounces amid rotating handlers and uniformed domestics in set designer Alexander Dodge’s glowing palace of a lair demarcated by grand piano, sweeping stair, and mural worthy of Diego Rivera and crowned by a chandelier as shapely and shimmering as a showgirl’s costume. Dodge actually throws in a second proscenium to house this actor who can’t stop acting, not even when what he’s acting is aggrieved. Mariann Verheyen’s costumes — complete with chic hats and satin wraps and one foamy ball gown suitable for Glinda the Good Witch (but not so suitable for a morning after, which is where it finds itself here) — likewise suggest a world of bygone artifice, where everyone, even when falling apart, is perfectly put together.
So, everything and everyone look marvelous. What director Martin then does is to ladle into Coward’s sophisticated broth a daring amount of physical comedy and a few priceless sight gags, whipping the comedy into something close to farce. Well, there are four doors, and if none of them slams, at least one beckons almost incessantly via its doorbell, as Essendine, gearing up for an African tour, deals with the ministrations of a solicitous if candid not-quite-ex-wife, a crisp and unfoolable secretary, a couple of long-time associates, an ingénue he’s trying to discard, and, most randomly, a loopy angry young playwright who’s also something of a stalker. In the beginning, it’s Nancy E. Carroll’s terse Scandinavian domestic, her hair in crossed braids, her mouth forever clamped down on a cigarette, who skittles to quell the buzzer. But by act three, the servants having vamoosed, it’s Essendine who must run to the summons, never failing, no matter how frantic, to consult a mirror and smooth a thinning lock.
For Present Laughter to work, it’s crucial that Essendine be as irresistible as he thinks he is. (That is, as irresistible as Noël Coward thought he was.) And Garber brings to the part a larger-than-life dash and some small self-awareness that make up for the long strings of adverbial exaggeration and tragic snits of affronted self-pity. His Essendine is an imaginative, attention-seeking child who, as befits an actor, believes what he says while he’s saying it. And his inability to eschew the stage — whether he’s seducing an admirer or playing on the heartstrings of his entourage or persuasively dressing up his amorality as honesty — is less an affectation than an affliction.
It’s nothing, though, to the grab bag of afflictions plaguing Brooks Ashmanskas’s Roland Maule, the persistent young dramatist who wangles an appointment and finds himself torn between denouncing Essendine as a cheap product of the commercial stage and pursuing him like an obsession. As written, the pretentious, working-class Maule (the breakthrough role for Nathan Lane, in the 1982 Broadway revival directed by and starring George C. Scott) is an oddball, to be sure. But Ashmanskas takes him to giddy heights, jetéing about the living room in his series of bow ties and argyle sweaters, sinking into the couch in bouts of mock contrition, and inserting himself into stage pictures wherein he doesn’t belong at every opportunity. It’s an endearing and bravura turn that may or may not belong in the play.
The other, mostly long-suffering supporting characters (plus one Jezebel, in a backless dress that stops just short of cleavage) are less preposterous, but several are as delicious. These include Carroll’s fag-sucking housekeeper with a Peter-Lorre-meets-the-Swedish-Chef accent, Lisa Banes’s long cool drink of water of a quasi-spouse, and Sarah Hudnut’s knowing girl Friday. In the hands of such a well-assembled cast, this is one period comedy that does indeed elicit present laughter.