“Present Laughter” is not “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” even though both plays date back to 1939, which was quite a year for comedy. A new revival of the Noel Coward classic about a narcissistic stage actor named Garry Essendine opened Wednesday at the St. James Theatre, and at times it plays like the Kaufman and Hart comedy under Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s not always steady direction. At other times, it is veddy British, proper, and absolutely terrific — especially when Kevin Kline and Kate Burton are on stage, which, fortunately, is most of the time.
Kline has always been the most balletic of actors. The 69-year-old actor no longer does the incredible pratfalls of his marvelous turn ages ago in “The Pirates of Penzance” and “On the Twentieth Century,” but then Garry Essendine is well into his 50s. The marvelous thing about Kline is that he gives the impression he could still do somersaults on stage if required, but instead makes do with the most incredible hand and wrist flips that turn even the donning of a dressing gown into a comic delight.
Essendine is conceited, arrogant and totally full of himself, but Coward makes him likable because everyone around him — from his secretary (Kristine Nielsen) to his valet (Matt Bittner) to his Scandinavian maid (Ellen Harvey) — has no problem talking back to him, except when it comes to waking him before noon or sometime a little thereafter.
Bittner displays a cool reserve in his portrayal of the amiably randy Fred. What’s good for the upper classes is just as much fun for the servants. Nielsen and Harvey are much broader in their comic effects, and it’s not quite right that they often receive applause when exiting a laugh-filled scene.
Meanwhile, Bhavesh Patel and Reg Rogers overdo it and fail to amuse in the far more antic roles of the inept writer Roland and the cuckold lover Morris, respectively. Much more egregious are the overwrought English accents coming from the lips of the ingénue Daphne (Tedra Millan) and the chronically philandering Joanna (Cobie Smulders).
There’s too much slapshtick around the edges of this “Present Laughter,” and it doesn’t always appear in some of these supporting performances. (In small roles, Peter Francis James and Sandra Shipley are nicely contained.) In between scenes, von Stuelpnagel lowers the curtain to project not only the time of day but to clue the audience to relax and have fun.
Fortunately, Kline is divine. So, too, is Burton in the far less showy role of the wife who left him long ago but never got around to divorcing him because they’re such good friends.
Burton is as understated as Kline is flamboyant, but there’s a refined civility that links the characters, and they play their duets to perfection. She’s almost Spencer Tracy to his Katharine Hepburn, only British.