Kevin Kline has loomed, larger than life, over Broadway for more than four decades: as the preening, prat-falling Pirate King opposite Linda Ronstadt in The Pirates of Penzance; the proboscoid panache-flaunting poet Cyrano de Bergerac; the narcissistic hunk Bruce Granit in On The Twentieth Century, among other choice performances. All this while cultivating a unique kind of Hollywood stardom in roles ranging from Meryl Streep’s lover Nathan in Sophie’s Choice to smelly dimwit holding his own with John Cleese and Jamie Lee Curtis in A Fish Called Wanda to unwittingly outed high school English teacher Howard Brackett in In & Out. Funny, serious, often both, he is a monument to technique, Jamón Ibérico, regal atop the ham pyramid.
It seems not so much inevitable as merely overdue that he should be swanning across the St. James Theatre stage in silk pajamas as Garry Essendine, that matinee idol with serious pretensions and swooning self-regard who cannot pass a mirror without checking his appearance even as his reflection has, of late, begun whispering news of time’s passing. The star of his own self-sustaining solar system, Garry is Noël Coward’s gift to leading actors of an uncertain age and temperament, beginning with himself but made their own by luminescences as varied as Clifton Webb, George C. Scott and Frank Langella.
At the beginning of Present Laughter, which opened tonight on Broadway, Garry’s latest conquest emerges from the guest room of his swank London duplex, dewy with, well, love, urging the staff to rouse him from his upstairs lair certain he will wish to resume their midnight tryst.
The staff know better. So do his secretary of 17 long-suffering years as well as the solicitous wife from whom he is separated but not estranged; not to mention the producer and director who have assiduously cultivated his lucrative marquee status despite Garry’s oft-professed desire (or, really, threat) to play the title role in a revival of Peer Gynt, that Ibsen eye-glazer, the Middlemarch of the stage canon that few other than conservatory students ever has willingly attended.
All of which is to say that Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s revival (he directed Hand To God) is fleet, funny, deliciously cast and over the top when it should be – and occasionally when it needn’t be, sweating just a bit too hard to earn the audience’s whoops of pleasure. Fortunately, Coward and Kline are too dynamic a duo to suffer any damage from such picked nits.
Chief among the other pleasures are Kate Burton (Scandal, Veep), self-assured enough to underplay as Liz Essendine, who tolerates her not-quite-ex’s dalliances and pipe dreams; Peter Francis James and Reg Rogers, veterans playing the male side of Garry’s support system as producer Henry Lyppiatt and director Morris Dixon, respectively, and Cobie Smulders (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back; How I Met Your Mother) as Henry’s predatory wife Joanna, a snakeskin seductress. Also: The soignée costumes bySusan Hilferty.
Less chief among the pleasures are Kristine Nielsen as Garry’s secretary Monica, leaning a touch too heavily on the pop-eyed slap-shtickery that served her more poignantly in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike; Tedra Millan as the ingénue Daphne, puppyish when she might be kittenish; and Bhavesh Patel as the lunatic playwright manqué who seems to have stumbled onto the stage from the Bernard Shaw comedy next door, spouting intellectual sophistry while also worshiping at the altar of Essendine.
I would add to the mild disappointments David Zinn’s well-appointed but unattractive set, which bespeaks taste running to the gauche. Perhaps that’s intended, but I doubt Coward would approve.
There are two new shows running downtown at the Public Theater, both of them essential. Opening tonight is Gently Down The Stream, a new play from Martin Sherman (Bent) and starring Harvey Fierstein as Beau, a longtime cabaret accompanist who has settled into late middle age in his flat in London (where Sherman, an American ex-pat, has lived for many years) and fallen in love with the much younger Rufus of Gabriel Ebert (Matilda).
Beau is a survivor of Stonewall and AIDS, with a history of lovers and losses that are accented by the background ballads and blues of Mabel Mercer, with whom he once worked. He is certain Rufus will leave him, but when Rufus does indeed fall in love with an age-appropriate fellow (Christopher Sears), Beau gives him away at their wedding. Gently is a kind of memory play and a work of prodigious challenge to the actor playing Beau, who has several long, beautifully wrought narrative speeches. Under Sean Mathias’ exquisite direction this enormously moving play is a reminder, as if it were needed, of the depthless well of Fierstein’s talent. Kinky Boots, for which he wrote the book, continues to run on Broadway and around the world, and a revival of his ground-breaking Torch Song Trilogy is in the works for next season. And here he is, acting up a storm with gentle sensitivity and passion.
A few floors below, John Leguizamo is performing his latest monologue, Latin History For Morons, which is precisely what it sounds like: a history of the so-called New World from the point of view of its oldest denizens. Taking off from his discovery of Howard Zinn’s corrective A Peoples’ History Of The United States, Leguizamo interweaves his own story with a hilarious retelling of the advances and destruction of the Aztec, Maya and Inca civilizations, the arrival of the “conquistadors” and the rise of modern Latin culture. There are visual aids, many jokes and a sober mission at work. If you want the condensed version, listen to Randy Newman’s “The Great Nations Of Europe.” But Leguizamo, an incomparable mimic and storyteller, is always great company.