How welcome Noel Coward is on a summer night, sending gales of laughter swirling through the Circle in the Square with his "Present Laughter," a revival of which opened last evening with George C. Scott functioning both as star and director. And the evening might be said to be atypical Coward, at that.
Scott has taken this very fragile comedy, really about nothing at all except an extremely vain actor and an odd assortment of friends and visitors, and pointed it in the direction of a knockabout farce while still trying to retain some semblance of Cowardian style. And, fragile though it is, the play is somehow resilient enough to sustain such treatment and provide enormously funny entertainment.
The fun, perversely, is centered around the figure of so strong and obviously virile a performer as Scott playing a role steeped in the homosexual sensibility. Garry Essendine, the arrogant romantic comedy star who imagines he would make a magnificient Peer Gynt, is still adored by the wife from whom he is separated and is sought after by countless women. Yet he is such a model of self-centered bitchiness that it is hard to imagine his ever entering the same bedroom with any of his putative conquests. Much of the play's basic humor lies in this contradiction, and one can easily imagine Coward's joy in playing the role he created onstage as well as on paper.
The same joy has communicated itself to Scott, so that we laugh as heartily at the very ridiculousness of his situation as we do at the character's. And, broad though Scott's direction is, he is a fine enough actor to avoid camping it up.
Coward would doubtless wince at so expansive a treatment of his frothy piece of nonsense. And, true, some of his sly jests are lost, a few through cutting but others in the reading. But the play does work on this level, and one can only marvel at Coward's knack for spinning so slight a story to such engaging lengths (this is a three-act play) and at the work's waspish strength as well as its good humor. For Coward, we must never forget, believed firmly in the homely virtues, and husband and wife are rejoined in a happy and amusing ending.
Dana Ivey, playing the star's invaluable secretary, Monica, probably comes closest to the Coward style, though I'm sure he would have been pleased with Kate Burton's portrayal of the dizzy young admirer, Daphne, who is put up in the spare room (all very proper, you see) when she pretends to have lost her key. Elizabeth Hubbard is winning as the wise and amused wife, Liz, and that stunning actress Christine Lahti strikes the right note of poised wantonness as the faithless wife of Garry's manager.
The broadest touches are provided by Nathan Lane as a hopeless young playwright and admirer of Garry's who is always turning up to shake somebody's hand with an excruciating jerk accompanied by a whinny of enjoyment, and by Betty Henritze, as an incredibly slow and sloppy Scandinavian housekeeper. And Fred, the fleet manservant forever saying "righty-o," is admirably set forth by Jim Piddock in a performance he never for once allows to get out of hand. Richard Woods, as Garry's agitated manager and husband of the faithless Joanna (Lahti), and Edward Conery as a playwright, as well as another of Joanna's lovers, give adequate supporting performances.
Scott's direction is, as I have indicated, a bit rough but always ready and, best of all, reveals his delight in both the play and his own role. Marjorie Bradley Kellogg has designed a classy set, sweeping the length of the Circle's long playing area on off-white carpeting abounding in chrome-pied chairs, a curved divan and an art-deco staircase leading up through the audience above the tunnel exit. Ann Roth's costumes, consisting mostly of a variety of dressing gowns for the beleaguered star but blossoming into spiffy 1930s duds, including absurd headpieces, for the women, are first-rate. Richard Nelson's lighting is bright and cheerful.
"Present Laughter" is one of the least frequently revived of Coward's major comedies, and if I were you, I'd take advantage of this happy visit.
Do plays themselves actually change, or is it only taste - our perception of plays at a certain time and place. Last night at the Circle in the Square they revived Noel Coward's Present Laughter with George C. Scott, and I thought, on virtually every count, it was smashing.
This is a most civilized play. Coward used the English language with a deftness that had not been heard since Oscar Wilde. He can dazzle with the commonplace.
He can make strange English place names, such as Uckfield or Stoke Poges, extravagantly funny. With climactic timing he can bring the house down with a line like "What a day for Cunard!" Genius.
Yet I think I did not always think so. I first saw Present Laughter in its 1947 revival, with Coward himself playing the egocentric, idolized actor-hero, Garry Essendine.
It seemed minor Coward in London at the time. In 1946 it had seemed minor Coward in New York. Even Coward thought the evening "gruesome," and wrote in his soon to be published diaries that, apart from Clifton Webb, "the cast was tatty and fifth-rate."
The cast is not tatty and fifth-rate at this new revival - yet I think its success runs deeper even than the production. Simply because Coward's talent to amuse was so urbane and well-publicized, simply because he wrote what critics called "thin plays," and he staunchly refused to write what he called "fat plays for fat critics," even when praised he was usually patronized.
Now nearly 10 years after his death his talent can be seen as a divine gift for comedy. Such productions as this help Coward come into his own.
Present Laughter was the nearest Coward came to writing a French farce. With its fantastic characters, its oscillating bedroom door and its gentle emphasis on sex as the action's mainspring, it could indeed be almost an Anglicization of Feydeau. But it is a little bit more.
Essendine is an obsessive self-portrait of the artist as a middle-aged queen. For reasons of then current custom, the actor has been conveniently decked out as a heterosexual, but that was presumably more out of convenience and necessity than conviction.
The character, an actor and the kingpin of his complex circle, is seen in the hectic midst of his intriguing life. As he prepared to tour Africa and open a later London season, his life, affectionately supervised by an ex-wife and an implacable secretary, whirls around in dotty, but flamboyant, anguish. He is plagued by people, circumstances and his sense of self. But he keeps his sense of humor waving like a flag...in a shipwreck.
To attempt this kind of comedy in what might be regarded as the inhospitable space of the Circle in the Square - for the play cries for a proscenium like a baby for its mother - is brave.
But Scott, who directs the play as well as stars in it (well not quite as well), helped by a resourceful yet glossy setting by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg, and the carefully period costumes by Ann Roth, succeeds with effortless style, as smooth as a Sulka silk dressing gown.
Scott the director is immeasurably assisted by Scott the actor.
Scott is wonderfully conceited. With his popping eyes searching ferociously for the dangerous affirmation of the nearest mirror, his flash of a fleshy Barrymore profile, his voice practically unctuous in its arrogance, Scott is Garry to the life.
He is surrounded by a neat collection of caricature portraits, including Dana Ivey as the tart-tongued secretary, Elizabeth Hubbard as the managing ex-wife, Christine Lahti as the voracious femme fatale, and, best of all, Nathan lane as a perfectly horrid little person tenaciously from Uckfield.
What a really lovely evening in the theater - basking in the sunshine of laughter, enjoying the dappled shadows of wit, and revelling in the sweet pungency of the deadly commonplace.
Who but Coward would think of sending matches to boy scouts or direct us to find compulsive humor in a line as apparently flat as "Happy? There is something so awfully sad about happiness?" Genius - unalloyed.
For about 10 minutes, it may bother you that George C. Scott is in some ways totally miscast as the hero of Noel Coward's ''Present Laughter,'' which was revived at the Circle in the Square last night. After that, you may well say: who cares? Mr. Scott is pickled with high spirits in this play. He's not just terrifically funny - he's actually having fun on stage, for the first time since ''Sly Fox,'' and his delight is contagious. He makes us feel glad to be in the theater with him - so glad that we're willing to meet him more than halfway in a purely silly summertime frolic.
It's an evening that courts folly at every turn. For starters, ''Present Laughter'' (here trimmed a bit) is not much of a play. Coward himself went on record as having been shocked at its initial success in the early 1940's, and no wonder. This comedy drifts about aimlessly in Act I before alighting on a plot that never rises to ingenious heights; many, though not all, of the epigrams and punch lines seem to have been written on automatic pilot; the sentimental resolution is hypocritical hogwash. And the whole notion of Mr. Scott's playing the hero, a role written by the playwright for himself, seems absurd. Garry Essendine, an aging matinee idol in the midst of personal and professional crises of his own making, should be a debonair British lounge lizard with ''a glittering veneer.'' Is this anyone's idea of George C. Scott?
But the actor, who serves as his own director, plunges full-speed ahead anyway, and it soon becomes clear why. Whatever else Garry may be, he is first and always an old-time star: he's vain, spoiled, manipulative, and fond of applying the theater's grand gestures to his private life. Mr. Scott knows about such things, it seems, and if he doesn't fit the surface characteristics of this role, he's totally at one with its heart. As the play is no classic, there's no serious reason why Mr. Scott shouldn't have his own way with it, especially since he has the goods to back up his ego.
In fact, the tension between Coward's Garry and Mr. Scott's Garry proves a nutty comic bonus in itself. In the hero's first staircase entrance, he is meant to be hung over after a night of debauchery: the mustachioed Mr. Scott, with bangs falling over his forehead and his rabbit's eyes popping, comes on like a burlesque Adolf Hitler. Later on, as Garry tries to impress a young female devotee with lachrymose, self-dramatizing laments of world-weariness, Mr. Scott is endearingly reminiscent of John Barrymore in ''Twentieth Century.'' In the scenes in which the barking Garry sends his servants colliding like billiard balls about his elegant flat, the star could be Monty Woolley in ''The Man Who Came to Dinner.''
Yet most of what Mr. Scott does serves ''Present Laughter,'' as written, quite well. His withering, crinkly-eyed glances and sharp timing deliver the punch on Mr. Coward's snide asides about Chekhov, about the proclivities of doing rep in Africa, about the fading graces of various over-the-hill actresses. His face falls like a souffle each time one of his entourage rudely reminds him of his age. His gravelly insults, delivered through clenched teeth, make bracing short order of each and every fool who has the temerity to disturb him with a phone call.
The star's physical gags are also prime in their idiosyncratic way, and they help keep ''Present Laughter'' from devolving entirely into a standup routine. Mr. Scott doesn't mind risking ridiculousness by affecting campy, sylphlike arm gestures that don't exactly match his physical stature: he just goes all the way and lets us know that he's in on the joke. When too many unwanted guests have appeared at his salon in Act III, he leaps across the full length of the stage like a stubby whooping crane.
Whatever he's doing, he's riding high on technique and charm; there's not a tentative moment in this performance, even when it goes astray. There's not much tentative about his direction, either. Mr. Scott can't quite lick the slow first act, but he manages the dizzy action that follows with aplomb. Though Coward's door-slamming, doorbell-ringing farcical machinery is more noisy than clever, the nonsensical comings and goings move swiftly enough to create the illusion of a real comic breeze.
Mr. Scott's staging is aided by the most handsome-looking production that the Circle in the Square has seen in some time. Ann Roth's costumes - from argyle socks to silk dressing gowns to ladies' hats - are stunning, and Marjorie Bradley Kellogg's set has brought off the seemingly impossible feat of bringing the chrome-and-glass angularity of Art Deco to an arena stage. The lighting, by Richard Nelson, is in the same diaphanous spirit.
The supporting cast generally lacks the star's exactitude. Christine Lahti is voluptuous as the principal femme fatale, but she's no match for Mr. Scott in their late-night duel of bitchy zingers. Nathan Lane, as an aspiring young provincial playwright fond of leaping onto couches and giggling loonily, alternately hits and overshoots his broad mark. The others are in varying degrees passable, but there is excellent work from Jim Piddock and Dana Ivey as Garry's sassy valet and long-suffering secretary. Miss Ivey, who speaks with acid irony and looks as if she were drawn by Peter Arno, is the production's best exemplar of the true Coward style.
As a play, ''Present Laughter'' is less about the Coward style than the Coward persona: Garry is forever being attacked for his hamminess, his frivolous career choices, his selfish pursuit of the good life. One might speculate that Garry's story is in part Mr. Scott's, too, but only up to a point. At evening's end, a producer deflates the hero by telling him that he's only effective ''in the right play and the right part.'' Yet here is Mr. Scott in what looks like the wrong play and the wrong part, making almost everything he does go right.