PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Present Laughter Garber Gives Acting Liaisons

By Harry Haun
January 22, 2010

Meet the first-nighters at Broadway's new production of Noel Coward's Present Laughter.

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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.

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Victor Garber
Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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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Banes, who returned from the West Coast last year playing an actress in Accent on Youth, said she enjoys her role here as a distantly hovering wife: "Liz has a great heart, and she cares for all these people so much, loves them so much and wants all these friendships that are in the play to survive."

And Garber presents no obstacles to her. "He's a cinch to love. It's hard not to just devour him every time you're on stage. He's so wonderful. He's such a wonderful head of the company like David Hyde Pierce was [in Accent on Youth]."

Gray makes a marvelous clothes horse for Greenwood's vintage duds. "She's a dream. We wish Jane would follow us around in life and dress us. It's so incredible. That black-and-white number! It's straight out of 'The Women,' straight out of old movies. You just can't believe you're going to get a chance to wear things like that."

One of the best physical comedians around, Ashmanskas has a field day as the pushy playwright who gives hero worship a bad name, coming on like a Tasmanian devil full of tics and twitches. "I had a good time, and I continue to," he admitted. "It's such a great play, such a great part, such a great cast, such a great set y'know, such a gift to be able to do it. So much of my stuff is with Victor, and we've been friends for a long time. Nicky's my old friend, too. He was my teacher in college, 400 years ago."

Lane, back from the Chicago tryout of The Addams Family, showed up and was a one-man cheering section. In the cast, he found more than his former secretary. He found a wife (Gray was Mrs. Butley) and a brother (he and Garber were Mizners back when Road Show was Wise Guys. "It was just lovely to see everybody doing such wonderful work," he remarked.

Another connection: Lane made his Broadway debut as Present Laughter's insistent playwright (the Ashmanskas role) "29 years ago," he added heavily. "I have many, many memories of this show."

So, too, does Michael Ritchie, who now runs the Ahmanson and the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. At the time, in that particular production, he was stage manager. In that capacity, he met and married a young actress days out of college, Kate Burton. Their son, Morgan Ritchie, co-starred with Mom in a much-acclaimed Williamstown production of The Corn Is Green, directed by Martin.

And when will that make it to New York? Good question, thought Martin. "You must ask that question of Todd Haimes and Andre Bishop," he said. "And when you get the answer, let me know."

Director Maria Aiken arrived at Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre on the arm of her husband, novelist Patrick McGrath, in effect returning to the scene of the crime (i.e., her thriller antic, The 39 Steps started at that theatre, and just finished a Broadway run of 771 performances, and will move into New World Stages on March 25 for an Off-Broadway postscript). Her next trick? "I'm becoming a grandmother in a week's time, and that's going to take up February."

Michael Cerveris, fresh from the doctor's office after having just played one in In the Next Room or the vibrator play, came with cane in hand. "Just a little minor surgery," he sloughed off with magnificent matter-of-factness (the "prop" helped). "I've got some things percolating but nothing I'm positive about. And meanwhile I'm going to Vancouver and shoot more episodes of 'Fringe.'"

The Understudy playwright Theresa Rebeck and her muse, Tony winner Julie White, showed up in support of Roundabout. The latter kicked up her high heels with Mario Cantone for the paparazzi in front of the theatre. "I just finished the show on Sunday, and people are already saying, 'What's next? What's next?'" White ranted. "I think it'll take me a while to do another play. Where am I going to find one I like as much as what Theresa writes?"

"I got another 'Transformers' movie to do over the summer. I don't think he [director Michael Bay] is going to make us run as much. He spoke to me. He was, like, 'I won't do that to you. I won't actually blow things up around you.' I said, 'I thank you. I appreciate that.' I'll just have to do a little amusing mothering and be out of there."

With their Catch Me If You Can in a holding pattern over Broadway, what are Hairspray songsmiths Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman doing next? "The Oscars," shouted out Wittman, meaning they will be popping some late-breaking "special material" out of the hat at the end of the show as they did so brilliantly for Neil Patrick Harris's stellar close to the last Tony Awards.

Bye Bye Birdie composer Charles Strouse and wife Barbara said they'd be catching A Little Night Music on Sunday. They were anxious to see how Catherine Zeta-Jones turned out. ("She was the first Annie in London after Andrea McArdle," said Strouse.)

Hope Davis, on well-earned R&R from God of Carnage and John Patrick Walker said they were getting back into parenting, as did Christopher Fitzgerald and Jessica Stone, who once upon a time co-starred magically in Martin's Where's Charley? at Williamstown.

"I actually just did She Stoops to Conquer with Nicky in the fall at the McCarter," said Stone, "but now I'm Mom, and little things are percolating in the future." Little things like babies? Fitzgerald, newly liberated from Finian's Rainbow, perished the thought: "No no more little leprechauns, thank you."

Other "old marrieds" in attendance: Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker, Dylan and Becky Ann Baker, Candida's upcoming designer-director Tony Walton and Jen LeRoy, director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall and producer Scott Landis, Carolyn McCormick and Byron Jennings, Boyd Gaines and Kathleen McNenny (both heading for George Street Playhouse in March to start rehearsing Sylvia for director David Saint).

Also first-nighting-it: John Benjamin Hickey, Tovah Feldshuh, record mogul Clive Davis, John Weidman, director Walter Bobbie, Sutton Foster (finally free of workshop work and readying to start a concert tour), her Leap of Faith workshop director-choreographer Rob Ashford, Zachary Quinto, Andrea Martin, Steven Pasquale sans Laura Benanti, Jessica Molaskey sans John Pizzarelli, playwright J. T. Rogers, Jack Noseworthy, Judith Ivey (buffing up Roundabout's The Glass Menagerie for February) and her designer for that show, Martin Pakledinaz, Jason Fuchs, Roundabout regular Emily Bergl ("I'm in the new TNT drama, 'Southlands,' which moved from CBS, and I'm doing a fantastic play by David Schulner in L.A. at The Black Dahlia called Forgiveness in a month"), Phyllis Newman, Edward Hibbert, directors Michael Greif and Scott Ellis (the latter currently helming Mr. and Mrs. Fitch at Second Stage), Ordinary Days songwriter Adam Gwon and Lily Rabe, just back from the Oregon-filming of "Letters to a Big Man" and looking forward to summer in the park with Portia in The Merchant of Venice.