No matter how manic the action gets in Present Laughter, which officially started erupting Jan. 21 at the American Airlines Theatre — and it gets up to a full gallop by Act III — Victor Garber unfailingly remembers to check his appearance in the mirror on his piano before answering the door and admitting new calamities.
Usually it's a willowy, willing seductress who has forgotten her latch key, the poor dear. These come in both married (Pamela Jane Gray) or eminently available (Holley Fain) varieties — but sometimes it's a dizzy playwright (Brooks Ashmanskas) more than a little mad about the boy, and occasionally it turns out to be the lingering, loving, not-quite-ex-wife (Lisa Banes). All converge in the third act for a door-slamming do-si-do that would curl the hair of anyone more mortal and less well-groomed than Garber's character.
Yes, this is an actor peering back from the vanity mirror — vain and arch and self-absorbed as they come — "World Weary," as he moans to himself over the piano at the top of Act II. People (loved ones, in particular) keep accusing him of overacting real life. Such, he imagines, is the price for being the model of naturalism on stage.
Noel Coward intended the character to be something of a self-sendup, and, by gouging away at the actor's fits and foibles, he gets to a mother lode of laughs.
"It's a character Coward loosely based on himself — and I'm sure he was, in many ways, like that — but he was parodying himself," Garber relayed after the show. "I love the humanity of the character — that's what interested me as much as anything."
It bothers him not a whit that the other characters are always saying he's acting instead of living — and enunciating it so well, to boot — primarily, he said, "because it's all written so beautifully. I, just for some reason, really relate to this part, and I always have from the first time I read it. I'm so glad I got to do it in New York."
Garber was not alone in being drawn to this actor, this brittle and preening Garry Essendine. He's the sort of blood sport that the theatrical community relishes, and a huge hunk of it turned out, frothing for fun, on opening night — so much so that even the balcony was star-studded. As it turns out, a balcony overview of the stage may be the best way to drink in all of the production's splendors (as MTC's Friedman was recently for The Royal Family, another amusing take on aging actors).
The curtain for Present Laughter rises to audible gasps of delight at the Art Deco nirvana that set designer Alexander Dodge has fashioned for Chez Essendine. And Jane Greenwood adds splash and style to the scene with elegant dressing gowns and some dazzling frocks for the ladies: "I looked at all the designers of the late 1930s. I mean, they were all rushing backwards and forwards to Paris all the time so they had stop in at Schiaparrelli's once in a while."
This is Harriet Harris' third time at the almost decade-old American Airlines Theatre, her second time here as the wisecracking, put-upon secretary of a blowhard egomaniac. She similarly served Nathan Lane's Sheridan Whiteside as Maggie Cutler in The Man Who Came to Dinner when the remodeled theatre opened in 2000.
[flipbook] And therein hangs a comparison. "I think Maggie opted out of this life she was in," the actress ventured. "She decided she really needed a man and went for it. I think she was in love with Sheridan Whiteside, and I don't think Monica is in love. I think she will always love Garry Essendine, but I think she has a nice man somewhere that no one, because they're so egotistical and egocentric, ever asks about."
Harris snags many of the evening's laughs, but the perfectionist in her persists. "There's always another one there. Why didn't I solve that yet? So it'll be fun to be in a long run, and it'll be fun to play from night to night, and I think Nicky [director Nicholas Martin] will certainly allow us to do that — not ruin the show but keep exploring. And that'll keep it funny."
In the three plays she has done here, all fall within the 1939-1941 vintage. (Coward wrote Present Laughter in 1939, but didn't get around to playing it until 1942 because of something called World War II.) And she continues to live in a sumptuous world removed from pressing realities. Dodge also designed some lavish sets for her Old Acquaintance outing. "Oh, my God! He really knows his stuff, doesn't he?" she trilled. "Happily, for a few hours a night, I get to live in this world."
A chance to finally get to work with Garber and director Martin brought her aboard. "Coming back to Roundabout was another incentive, but a lot of it had to do with being in a play with Lisa. She's one of my dearest, dearest friends."
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