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Kevin Kline in Noel Coward’s ‘Present Laughter’ on PBS’ ‘Great Performances’
November 3, 2017  | By David Hinckley

Noel Coward’s Present Laughter provided jolly good escapist fun during World War II and it performs exactly the same function today.

Kevin Kline (top) stars as Garry Essendine in a theatrical production that ran on Broadway earlier this year and was taped for the PBS Great Performances special that airs at 9 p.m. ET Friday on PBS (check local listings).

The show revolves around Essendine, a highly successful actor hilariously obsessed with himself while a half dozen minidramas swirl about. These subplots are, to be frank, quite ordinary, and Coward knows it. They become vehicles of often-delightful humor because, well, because Coward wrote them and Kline plays them with such deadpan gravity.

Essendine speaks stirringly, for example, about mounting a production of Peer Gynt, which everyone, including his potential financier, agrees is a terrible idea. This is the sort of thread, multiplied by several similar career and personal dramas,that makes up pretty much the whole play.

It’s not exactly a show about nothing, Seinfeld-style, but its ambition doesn’t run much deeper than finding the absurd humor in vanity and exploring the many ways it can be deflated.

His estranged wife Liz (Kate Burton, below, with Kline) serves as a primary agent of this deflation, along with his long-serving and unflappable secretary Monica (Kristine Nielsen). Liz knows how to play him and Monica understands that she needs to ignore 90% of what he says.

For all Garry’s self-focus, he’s not some two-dimensional preener unaware of what’s happening around him. He understands it and even participates.

At the same time Kline expertly conveys how riddled Garry is with neuroses. He’s afraid he’s getting old. He’s afraid the public wants too much from him at the same time he’s afraid the public will stop wanting him at all.

That conflict is embodied in the opening scene when we meet Daphne Stillington (Tedra Millan), a young woman who adores Garry and whom he allowed to sleep at his home when she told him she had forgotten her house key.

Were Present Laughter written today, we’d all know exactly what that meant, wink wink, despite a gaping age difference.

Being that Coward wrote it in 1939, we get repeated assurances that Daphne slept in a guest room on a separate floor. Our only tiny hint that it could have been a closer encounter comes from Monica’s cryptic cracks about a lot of young women forgetting their house keys.

In the larger sense, the humor of Present Laughter springs from a confluence of mostly normal people and a couple of weird people like Roland Maule (Bhavesh Patel), Garry’s semi-crazed would-be protégé.

It sounds like the premise for an extended sitcom, and in some ways that’s what Present Laughter is.

The difference is that Noel Coward wrote it, and Coward was a master at the best sort of droll British comedy. Present Laughter isn’t his best work, but that still leaves it well above almost any other light comedy.

This production also celebrates the charms of live theater and the pleasures of its harbor. For all the thousands of shows on TV these days, Great Performances unfortunately remains almost unique.

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