This being such a litigious age, I wonder if there is any legal precedent for actors to sue a director for making them embarrass themselves before an audience. If so, I might go into practice and invite several members of the cast of "Present Laughter" to be my first clients. I will, however, file a class-action suit on behalf of Noel Coward admirers for the travesty director Scott Elliott has made of this 1942 comedy. Everyone has a right to be wrongheaded, and Elliott, who has established himself as an important, imaginative director, is entitled to a major mistake. This, I'm afraid, is it. The play is a farce about a London matinee idol constantly eluding fans and family. Elliott has directed it as if Coward had concealed instincts that only now can be made public. For example, Elliot makes a young man who is a fan of the actor unambiguously homosexual not only having him embrace the actor, but later having him offer himself to him naked. Coward did not hide his homosexuality, but his world distinguished, as ours does not, between private and public. Public life imposed obligations discretion, civility and a gaiety having nothing to do with sexual orientation. Often his comedy stems from the gap between public facade and private reality. He did not, however, regard the theater as a confessional. Nor are his plays about overstatement, which everything here is. A few actors keep their dignity intact. Frank Langella, expectedly dry and elegant as the actor, Allison Janey as his cool former wife and Caroline Seymour as a woman who craves him. A few others, however, might take advantage of my legal services, especially David Cale. The play moves so frenetically that the actors seem like marionettes manipulated by someone with a nervous disorder. If the play had been directed with as much care as the set and costumes have been designed, it might have had some style and elegance. As it is, it has almost none.
Noel Coward wrote "Present Laughter" in a industriously well-spent week on the basis of a joyously ill-spent lifetime.
There is no plot (to speak of), only one character (who counts), very few jokes (mostly sub-epigrams) and even a stolen final curtain (from "Private Lives," the cheeky bounder!), so there is no earthly reason, if we're talking fair play, for it to be a success.
But somehow it certainly is. Undeserving, without doubt, but given the right cast - as it magnificently was at the Walter Kerr Theater last night - it is simply, and better yet, cumulatively, funny.
No, more than funny - sweetly but tremendously hilarious. Also this time around the play has to a large extent been re-invented, partly by its suave but boisterous star, Frank Langella, who brings a classic finesse and willful but bravura imagination to a conceivably dated comedy, and partly by its director, Scott Elliott, who seems happily determined to show total non-awareness of Coward and the Coward tradition.
Of course, as even Ellis cannot deny, at the heart, soul and funny-bone of the play is a wickedly vain and wittily vainglorious self-caricature of Coward himself, but this production concentrates on a more generic picture of the artist as a middle-aged humbug.
He calls himself Garry Essendine, wears dressing-gowns with panache, has everyone fall in love with him, even though he irascibly senses that they all - particularly his ex-wife - see through him.
Which, of course, makes them love him all the more. As he is first to point out: "Everyone worships me; it's nauseating." Yet he never appears all that nauseated, accepting such sickly adoration as his due.
An extravagant egotist but a rather more insecure egotist, Garry would walk a mile for a mirror, an audience or preferably both in strictly that order.
The first Garry Essendine I ever saw was Coward himself, and the most recent, apart from this, was Tom Conti, with innumerable divas in between from George C. Scott to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. - and they were all traditionally long on charm but shorter on self-awareness.
Elliott has encouraged (or permitted) Langella - like, one imagines, Coward in real rather than stage life - to suggest self-love but to reveal a rather more realistic conception of his true value. Part of his evident glee in life is getting away with it.
Langella is far from being the whole show - Elliott has taken scrupulous care of that. The setting by Derek McLane is a gorgeously elaborate joke, the costumes by Ann Roth seem elegant essays in period style. And the performances are calculated, clever and devastatingly comic.
Elliott has developed the subtext to the intense young playwright, Roland Maule (Tim Hopper), also giving him a wonderful sight-gag that may shock the shockable but should amuse all, and added such elements as a cheek-licking, scene-stealing dachshund, while having Garry's cockney manservant chirpily played by cabaret's Steve Ross, who obliges on the grand piano during the intermissions and before the show!
But best of all he has developed a smoothly mechanized sense of family feel among the cast - with outstanding turns from Allison Janney as the commandingly motherly ex-wife, and Caroline Seymour as a steamily sultry huntress. Only David Cale, as one of Garry's producing team, goes over the top and fails to come up the other side.
"Present Laughter," as old-fashioned as routine Salieri-style Mozart, can still provide a lusciously enjoyable evening, and brilliantly presented, it brings an almost unexpected luster to Broadway.
The first unexpected exposure of naked skin in the new production of Noel Coward's ''Present Laughter,'' a play never before known for its anatomical explicitness, occurs very early in the first act. What is seen is only a bare, middle-aged midriff. But in Coward's world, where silk pajamas are usually as close as one gets to the altogether, it's like sipping from a Champagne glass and discovering it's been filled with straight gin.
The midriff belongs to the ever-magnetic Frank Langella, who, in a role he was born for, is having an infectiously fine time as Coward's alter ego, Garry Essendine, a famous, self-dramatizing actor who never met a mirror he didn't like.
At this particular moment, Garry, about to confront a young woman he unwisely bedded the night before, is taking inventory of his appearance, a favorite pastime. He raises his pajama top and distends, then immediately sucks in, what is revealed to be a considerable expanse of white flesh. The sight sends him reeling. Us, too.
In the gutsy, often funny but exhaustingly overeager revival of this frothy farce, the very in-demand director Scott Elliott, making his Broadway debut, is determined to find the id in Coward's glittering land of battling egos. The production, which opened last night at the Walter Kerr Theater, suggests that beneath the sleek surfaces of all those dressing gowns and evening clothes lies a very human host for carnal appetites and mortal decay.
Sensuality here isn't indicated only by satin innuendoes. This interpretation unmistakably evokes two specific sex acts. And it offers more than a flash of full-frontal nudity (not from Mr. Langella). This is provocative stuff, all right, but the restrained sophistication one associates with Coward seems as distant as 1939, the year in which the play was written.
In his previous work, in Off Broadway productions of Mike Leigh's ''Ecstasy'' and Christopher Kyle's ''Monogamist,'' the 34-year-old Mr. Elliott demonstrated a startlingly assured array of talents: flashy, inventive showmanship, a keen eye for psychological underpinnings and a knack for broadening context beyond the ostensible limits of the play.
Those traits are all in evidence in this ''Present Laughter'' (which has been given a sumptuous staging, with a delectable set and costumes by Derek McLane and Ann Roth, that most young directors could only dream of). They are, in fact, too much in evidence. Mr. Elliott has enough ideas, many of them inspired, to fill a half-dozen productions of the play. The fertility of his theatrical imagination doesn't come into question; his abilities as an editor do.
''Present Laughter'' was written when Coward was, like Garry, creeping reluctantly into middle age and beginning to register the wear of decades of a life in the theater. The play is a cacophony of importunate ringing doorbells and telephones, of pleas both professional and romantic from an exasperating assortment of colleagues and admirers.
In the midst of such Mayfair-style Sturm und Drang, Garry gleefully outdramatizes everyone around him, throwing spectacular tantrums and striking noble, martyred poses. But there is also the sense of a canny, manipulative mind behind the postures. And when he sarcastically observes, ''Oh, I'm always acting, watching myself go by'' (a line Mr. Langella delivers with delicious weariness), he's more or less telling the truth.
Philip Hoare, Coward's most recent biographer, has observed that for all its comic frenzy, ''Present Laughter'' is really about control. Garry may follow his hedonistic impulses but never so far as to get lost. He's the playwright of his own life, and his singular method of ordering things is a reflection of the smooth, elegant machinery of the comedy itself.
Mr. Elliott is obviously looking for the cracks in the facade of both the character and the play, and he starts with the premise that sexuality can never be contained like a pocket handkerchief. This Garry has overtly bisexual urges, and they lead him into dangerous territory. The humor, accordingly, is both shriller and darker than usual.
There are refreshing aspects to the approach. Coward's characters have never seemed more warmly human than they do at moments here. The physicality of the interpretation is particularly effective in emphasizing the familial bond that exists among people in the theater.
Garry and his associates are forever touching, kissing, tapping and clutching one another in ways that suggest the need for reassurance of children who never quite grew up. And there's a lovely scene in which Garry and his long-suffering, tart-tongued secretary, Monica (Lisa Emery in a fine, wryly wistful performance), relax into a Champagne-soaked complicity as they go over the day's mail.
Mr. Elliott has also introduced some very funny bits of physical business, especially those involving Roland Maule (a hilariously scary Tim Hopper), an angry young experimental playwright with an alarming crush on Garry. But the director can pile on the gags until they smother the script. (The presence of a live dachshund in one scene eclipses a charming display of derangement from Kellie Overbey as a love-smitten society nymph.)
Even the use of mirrors, an essential element of any production of ''Present Laughter,'' is overdone. And by the play's end, we feel closer to the world of Joe Orton than Noel Coward. In pushing the comedy's silken envelope, Mr. Elliott doesn't avoid tearing it.
Mr. Langella can certainly pull out all the stops when the occasion demands it, and while he's in overdrive in the first act, he adds some intriguingly dark shades to the character. His Garry has clearly heard the chimes at midnight (his cough is a bronchial wheeze), and when he's alone on stage in one of the production's few quiet moments, he gives off a heart-tugging air of melancholy solitude.
Other performances are less satisfying. Steve Ross, the suave cabaret performer, does admirable double duty as the singing pianist who sets the mood with period music before each act and as Garry's Cockney valet, while Margaret Sophie Stein brings a cool drollness to Garry's wacky Swedish housekeeper.
But David Cale and Jeff Weiss, as Garry's business partners, are (inappropriately) hammier than Mr. Langella. And Caroline Seymour, though physically ravishing as a scheming seductress, projects an abrasive stiffness that belongs to another play.
The most fully accomplished performance on the stage comes from Allison Janney as Liz, Garry's efficient wife (in name only; they never bothered to divorce), who also happens to be his professional nursemaid. Both the character and the actress portraying her never lose a commanding air of authority leavened with knowing affection and exquisite comic timing.
She's the primary (and necessary) force of sanity in the production. Everyone should have a Liz in his life, as Ms. Janney plays her. That includes Mr. Elliott, whom she would undoubtedly have told to relax, already, and to trust his talent.
Frank Langella inhabits the tux-and-sherry world of Noel Coward as naturally as a cocktail bar pianist dons tails. He sails through Scott Elliott's staging of "Present Laughter" without a false note (or a surprising one, for that matter), even when the production itself veers from the all-too-anticipated breezy Brit archness to moments of crudeness and audience-pandering. Elliott, making his Broadway bow after several acclaimed Off Broadway productions, mostly does a journeyman's job here, leaving little of the personal stamp that might truly have distinguished his debut. "Present Laughter" is everything one might have expected, which is not to say all one might have hoped.
Perhaps the quintessential Coward play, "Present Laughter" never leaves the book-lined studio -- Americans would call it a drawing room, or perhaps a den -- of a Barrymore-esque ham named Garry Essendine (Langella). Within the upper-crust confines, planet Essendine is encircled by a doting collection of satellites, including his devoted secretary, Monica (Lisa Emery), business associates Henry (Jeff Weiss) and Morris (David Cale) and estranged but still loving wife Liz (Allison Janney). With his constant womanizing and histrionic temperament, the middle-aged thesp creates an emotional whirlwind that has become a wearying way of life for his close cadre of friends.
The particular flurry of "Present Laughter" is set off just as Essendine is about to leave for an extended theatrical tour in Africa (spring 1939). Daphne Stillington (Kellie Overbey), the latest in what's apparently a long string of indiscretions, promises to be more tenacious than most, pledging her youthful love to the older Essendine following a night of lust, if not passion. Even as she leaves shortly after the play begins, the audience knows she'll be back to complicate life for the Essendine entourage.
Same goes for Roland Maule (Tim Hopper), an idealistic young playwright obsessed with the famous actor. Disdaining the old-fashioned melodrama in which Essendine indulges (both onstage and off), the young playwright gains admittance to the actor's lair only to deliver a scathing indictment. Still, he can't help being drawn into the Essendine orbit, and any latent homosexuality suggested in the text is brought blazingly to the surface as the young playwright does a chase routine worthy of Harpo Marx.
The third and most complicating development of all comes in the comely form of Joanna (Caroline Seymour), the flirtatious young wife of Essendine's friend and business manager, Henry. The conniving Joanna collects men the way Essendine collects women (although the play, of course, takes a much dimmer view of her hobby), and when she turns her attentions to Essendine ("I've loved you for seven years," she says), their night together threatens to shatter the familial, if unconventional, circle of friends.
Overacting in life the way he apparently does onstage -- when a friend makes just that charge, the actor exaggeratedly replies, "You've hurt me, unbearably!" -- Essendine is the type of theatrical creation that comes close to guaranteeing the real-life actor playing him a shot at the phrase "tour de force." Langella takes full advantage, afraid neither to mince nor bellow.
But it's difficult to say whether he or Elliott is responsible for the production's missteps. Neither can resist repeating a joke if it gets a laugh the first time around -- how many times does Essendine have to check himself in the mirror to establish his vanity? -- and when the production struggles for farce it achieves little more than volume.
Nothing makes the failures of the production's final half so clear as the disrobing of two of Essendine's suitors, particularly the complete clothes-shedding of young playwright Roland. Whatever we know about Coward's personal life, we also know that full-frontal nudity and overt sexuality, gay or straight, pretty much shatters the delicate veneer of restraint and suggestion that gave the playwright his voice. And if Elliott (or Langella) really had the strength of his convictions, he'd let the campy, effete Essendine complete (or at least be tempted by) the gay pass. Deconstruction, by any other name, is not a cheap laugh.
Of the other cast members, only Emery, as the harried but loyal secretary, and Janney, as the ex-wife, display the dry sophistication that makes the most of Coward's lines. Overbey is fine as the starstruck young girl, and Hopper, though misdirected, does as well as can be expected as the amorous playwright. Both Seymour and Elliott make Joanna entirely more unpleasant than she need be -- the character should be a seductress, not a monster -- and, as a maid, Margaret Sophie Stein is given one visual joke (chain-smoking with a cigarette holder) that is repeated enough to give the audience emphysema.
As Essendine's two money men, Weiss leaves little impression compared with the flailing of Cale's Morris, whose British twit is a grotesquery even by Monty Python standards. The twitching and gesticulating seem even more out of place amid Derek McLane's very proper drawing-room set -- a room in which Coward, if not always this production, would be right at home.