Victor Garber, the veteran stage and screen star who's the most likely heir to the matinee idols of yesteryear, sardonically acknowledges that Present Laughter's egomaniacal playboy-thespian Garry Essendine is a role he was born to play.
"A self-absorbed, self-pitying, aging actor who desperately wants to avoid getting any older? Why would you think of me for the part?" says Garber with mock indignation over breakfast at the old-school theatre district haunt Joe Allen.
Sitting next to Garber — a dashing, 60-year-old silver fox if ever there was one — is his longtime friend and the play's director, Nicholas Martin (whom everyone calls "Nicky").
"I think he's one of the last true leading men," says Martin of the actor who has graced the big and small screens in everything from "Titanic" to "Legally Blonde" to the TV series "Alias." And of course, there's his hearty Broadway credits like Art, Little Me, Lend Me a Tenor and Damn Yankees. "Victor has every color. There's danger and remorse in him in equal measure...and many, many good things as well," Martin laughs. The two have known each other for more than 25 years, since both appeared in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest in the early '80s when Martin was still plying his trade as an actor. ("I was, let us say, an indifferent actor," says Martin. "I delighted some and disgusted others.")
Present Laughter and the part of the suave Essendine — who sees all the world as a stage, and himself as its main attraction — was first suggested by Martin. The pair mounted the Noël Coward play to glowing reviews at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston in 2007 (where Martin served as artistic director for eight years).
Opening at Broadway's American Airlines Theatre this month, the play finds the charming, middle-aged Essendine fluttering around his 1930s London flat, trying to fend off an array of annoying interlopers and hangers-on, including his not-yet-divorced wife, his seen-it-all secretary, an obsessed ingenue, a couple of business partners and a lunatic playwright.
"This is my kind of play, my kind of humor," says Garber. "The wit and the sensibility just sit in me so comfortably. When I did Blithe Spirit years ago, I thought, 'There's so much more to Coward than I've ever given him credit for.' I always thought he was funny, but there's a poignancy and a melancholy in this play that I didn't realize was there before."
As for the theatrical twosome of Garber and Martin, there's nothing frivolous about a friendship that goes back several decades. They alternately tease, praise and cajole each other as they trip down memory lane, punctuating the conversation with peals of laughter. Garber, in fact, is the person who urged Martin to take up directing professionally after seeing many of his student productions at Bennington College, where Martin taught for over a decade. When an offer to be an artistic associate at Playwrights Horizons emerged, "Victor said, 'You must do it'," says Martin, who went on to great renown as a director and now leads the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
In turn, Martin returned the favor, casting Garber in The Royal Family at Williamstown and Macbeth at the Old Globe in San Diego. Although Garber has four Tony nominations under his belt, getting the chance to do the Scottish Play was a life-changing experience.
"It was a role I never imagined doing," says Garber. "I remember after the first preview going home to my apartment and looking in the mirror and saying, 'You actually got through it.' I think my confidence level was lifted and altered just by doing that play. And that was Nicky. He gave me that opportunity."
Still, it was a once-in-a-lifetime proposition for Garber. "I don't know if I'd want to try it again. I don't think I'm up for a fight scene at 10 o'clock. I'd rather do Present Laughter, where I can just sit in my silk dressing gown and drink and talk up a storm," he says with a laugh.
With so many roles (his most recent credits include the film "Milk" and TV's "Nurse Jackie"), Garber's career has been nothing if not diverse.
"Nobody remembers this, but in one year, Victor played Ernest Hemingway and Liberace in two different TV movies," says Martin. "In England, an actor who has the versatility and breadth to play both those parts would be knighted by now."
"Yeah, well, I'm not holding my breath," responds Garber with a wry smile. "Some of those movies are unwatchable."