Frank Langella: Never Underestimate Laughter

Frank Langella: Never Underestimate Laughter Unlike Garry Essendine, the perpetually preening matinee idol he sends up in Noël Coward's Present Laughter, Frank Langella does his real-life living in a living room void of mirrors. Nothing floor-length or hand-held. Nothing covert or conspicuous. Nada.

Unlike Garry Essendine, the perpetually preening matinee idol he sends up in Noël Coward's Present Laughter, Frank Langella does his real-life living in a living room void of mirrors. Nothing floor-length or hand-held. Nothing covert or conspicuous. Nada.

But this is not to say his likeness is not sufficiently represented. It is‹in spectacular spades: Adorning every wall is a theatrical caricature that catches him at a particular highpoint in his career‹Dracula, The Father, Sherlock's Last Case (as director), Design for Living, et al. Running dizzily around the room as they do, they start to resemble after a while an Al Hirschfeld firesale, speaking volumes for a life well-spent in the theatre.

"It's a very interesting thing to have people tell you that you're 'well-cast' or 'born to play this part,'" he says, a smile playing at his lips. "In point of fact, I play an egocentric, vain, self-involved, self-loving hedonist."

In short, an actor. And, surprisingly enough given his grand theatrical manner, it's only the second time in his life he has ever essayed a member of his profession. The other time was the Old Granddad of 'em all‹Junius Booth, patriarch of Edwin and John Wilkes‹in an Austin Pendleton opus that played on a much darker side of the footlights than Present Laughter.

"Whenever I do comedy, people always say, 'I didn't know you do comedy.' I've actually done more of it than I've done serious plays. One should never underestimate laughter. One should never downgrade it. There's nothing more exciting than doing this play and listening to people laugh with the gusto that they do. This is just as valid to me as doing a piece as shattering as The Father."

Be it comedy or drama, there is no question that, at 57 (just turned, the first day of 1997), Langella is acting at the top of his art. Last season he pretty much capped the drama category with an elegant swandive into strait-jacketed lunacy in Strindberg's The Father. His unraveling of a rigid Army officer, Captain Adolph, was an over-the-top tour-de-force that won him Best Actor nods from both the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle (had it, too, not been "egregiously overlooked" by last year's nominating committee, it would probably have won him the Tony as well). And the prizes continue‹last month: the Joe A. Callaway Award, from the Actors' Equity Foundation for the best male performance in a professional production of a classic play (written prior to 1900). Next stop: Showtime plans to preserve the performance on film, so he could well have an Ace Award up his sleeve.

Although The Father appears to be the more dangerous and difficult piece of work, Langella insists it's a snap compared to the demonic demands of Present Laughter: "First of all, it's about an hour and ten minutes longer. It's three acts instead of two. The requirements‹just in terms of the physical‹are much greater. Although Adolph was on every second, he slowly built toward his climactic scene. Garry is out of a cannon from the moment he comes on until the show is over. Comedy requires about double the energy that tragedy does. It just does. When you're playing a part that calls for the kind of depth of emotion that Adolph did, all the internal rhythms are going very strongly, but you don't necessarily have to constantly keep your ear out for the comic timing of a particular line. A laughline must appear, always, as if you're just thinking it up and throwing it away. That means your ears have to be sharp. Your footwork, the way you turn your head, when you light a cigarette, when you put down a drink, how you physically deal with another actor‹it's so much more precise in comedy. Anybody will tell you comedy is much harder."

Happily, he has a strong cast of comic accomplices. "David Richenthal [co producer], Scott Elliott [the director] and I cast it together. Scott saw hundreds of actors, then brought in 25 or 30 of his top choices. In a casting session, usually someone is going to disagree on someone. This cast is 100 percent the choice of the producer, the director and the star. When discussion time came up, there wasn't any: we all had picked our first choices on every role."

Elliott's anything-goes-including -clothes direction brings Coward's self-scripted star-turn of 1942 out of its conventional-comedy closet and pushes it to the brink of controversy. "What is interesting to me," admits Langella, "is the way the staging approaches Coward's life and his homosexuality, what he really meant to say in the play as opposed to what he did say, what a modern audience wants to see in it or what it doesn't.

"There are many playwrights‹among them, Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Noël Coward‹who, I think, had no real opportunity to express themselves truly. If you were a certain way in your life and you had a certain way you would like to express yourself, then you had to channel it‹as a result of either the Lord Chamberlain or the mores of the time‹into some other venue. I don't think Coward would have wanted all the characters in the play to be men‹he wrote so well for women‹just as I don't think he intended this to be necessarily autobiographical, although he did manage to work in three or four actual incidents from his own life."

Langella plays the actor deftly as if he were doing a tricky tightrope-act above his amorous predators, without tipping his true sexual preference one way or the other. "What is 'a gay way,' anyway, or 'a straight way'? We all know men who look like John Wayne and are gay as geese, and we all know men who have a strange effeminacy about them, a delicacy, and they have eight kids. There is this absurd idea in people's minds‹it's fading, I think, thank God‹about what gay is and what straight is and even what human sexuality is.

"As a matter of fact, I think the character of Garry is totally accepted by the audience as a man who is ready for anything." And, of course, the ultimate Awful Truth about this egotist is that nothing born of woman could possibly come between him and himself. "Maybe his lovers, whether they're men or women, are content just to worship at the shrine‹the shrine being his own image."

Coward, of course, tailor-made this part for himself, but Langella eschews any imitation, thank you very much. "It's not my style," he says, "and frankly it wouldn't interest me to do that. What I allow myself is an emotional roller coaster. I'm open to anything. I'm open to going down any avenue. Anywhere the director suggests I go, I go. Scott gives you the freedom to do that. He gets you to see there are no boundaries. Eventually, because it is an art form, you choose, and that's it, but in the rehearsal process, there shouldn't be any sentence that begins with 'Oh, this character would never do that.' There were early rehearsals in which the sexual charge between Garry and the young playwright, Roland, was there in the first scene. Then, that went away‹just sort of unfolded the way it was meant to unfold. This is what the rehearsal process is. It's allowing your imagination to say, 'Well, what would happen if so-and-so were lovers?' Then, you work through that and discover that it isn't supported by the text. This disappears, and you try something else. If nothing else, you find that it is a dead-end street, so you go down another avenue."

Elliott, for one, appreciates Langella's elasticity and risk-taking. "Frank is never stagnant," he says. "He's always working, always growing. Every time I see his performance, it becomes more nuanced. It's unbelievable someone of his stature doesn't ever really think in results terms. He's always working in the moment. That's beautiful to me because every time I watch the show I see something a little bit different that he's working on. It's extraordinary."

When you watch Langella lording majestically over the galloping madness that fills the stage of the Walter Kerr, you don't see strings. You see a stylist at work, fencing with his admirers, even matching a dachshund lick for lick.

And work, stresses Langella, is the operative word. "When I was a kid actor sitting in a classroom at Syracuse University, I remember a student raising his hand and saying, 'Well, professor, what about Moments of Greatness? What about Inspiration?' My teacher said, 'You don't have that. You don't strive for that. What you do is work hard, like a brick-layer. You get up on the stage every night and you work work work. You don't go out there looking to be inspired. Go out and work, and every once in a while‹on a rainy Wednesday afternoon with half a house out there‹you'll go off with these extraordinary flights of inspiration when the magic of your voice and your character and the audience and the lights and the other actors all comes together. You're going to give one of these great performances, and you're not going to know why.'

"The reason people stay in this profession is to have those moments every once in a while," says Langella, "but 90% of the time you go do work. At 7:30 I'll go to the theatre, and I will want to go out there in order to do my job‹and if, on a particular night, it takes off in some magical way where we're all holding on‹as indeed it does often in this play‹it's great. There are other nights you don't feel that so-called magic. That's when you earn your salary." -- By Harry Haun