Magazine article Commonweal

Present Laughter

Magazine article Commonweal

Present Laughter

Article excerpt

One street further up Broadway, at the Walter Kerr Theatre, a production is taking a comic view of a great artist's debt to his image. A witty cross between a drawing-room comedy and a farce, Noel Coward's 1939 play Present Laughter portrays a very bad week in the life of a conceited theatrical darling and his ever-increasing circle of annoying hangers-on. The shrewd and hilarious production directed by Scott Elliott occupies the opposite end of the theatrical spectrum from Taking Sides: every speech and piece of stage business falls into place to celebrate the sheer fun of performance.

The seduction starts when you enter the theater, with its gilt and peach paneling, and find veteran cabaret artist Steve Ross playing a grand piano on the edge of the stage. Ross, his hair parted exactly down the middle, sits in front of a mansion's gray facade, playing songs from the thirties. As the house lights dim and a dappled glow plays over the facade, Ross launches into a few Noel Coward songs, including the priceless "Mrs. Worthington":

Don't put your daughter on the stage, Mrs. Worthington;

Don't put your daughter on the stage.

Tho' they said at the School of Acting she was lovely as Peer Gynt

I'm afraid on the whole an ingenue role

Would emphasize her squint.

At the end of his routine, the sounds of an old phonograph replace Ross's voice; the piano slides backward on tracks, and the facade lifts to reveal the faded but elegant studio that is the set throughout the play. When Ross steps out from the piano, he is Fred, butler to theatrical legend Gary Essendine.

Starring in the role of Essendine is Frank Langella, who has received just encomiums for his exuberant performance. Langella plays the aging playboy with superb petulance. From the moment when he slinks down the set's curving staircase in his pajamas, at the beginning of act 1, he shares each exaggerated gesture - each exasperated sigh, each preen, each tantrum - as a sort of in-joke with the audience. …

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