‘Present Laughter’: Kevin Kline lauded for Broadway homecoming in Noël Coward comedy

In the six decades since “Present Laughter” debuted on Broadway in 1947, Noël Coward’s farce has been revived five times including the new production starring Oscar winner Kevin Kline (“A Fish Called Wanda”) that bowed on April 5 at the St. James Theatre.

Set in a studio apartment in London in 1939, Coward’s semi-autobiographical play centers on Kline’s womanizing stage star Garry Essendine. Preparing to embark on a repertory tour in South Africa, his plans get muddled by his past and present romances. Stage veterans Kate Burton and Kristine Nielsen and TV star Cobie Smulders round out the starry cast assembled by Tony-nominated director Moritz von Stuelpnagel (“Hand to God”) .

After so many prior mountings of “Present Laughter,” including one just seven years ago, did critics embrace this production?

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A few minor quibbles aside, “Present Laughter” received outstanding reviews, with stellar notices for its leading man. Marilyn Stasio (Variety) calls the play a “delicious drawing-room comedy,” applauding Kline as “a bona fide matinee idol of the ideal age and with the urbane sensibility to do justice to sophisticated scribes like Noël Coward,” and characterizing Kristine Nielsen’s “master class” performance as “pure heaven.” David Rooney (Hollywood Reporter) similarly praises the pairing of Kline and Coward “a match made in heaven,” with Kline delivering “a performance of unimpeachable skill” and Nielsen “at her hilarious best here delivering deadpan ripostes.”

Deeming the production a Critic’s Pick, Ben Brantley (New York Times) also praises many of the performances and design elements, yet calls it an “uneven but enjoyable production.” Jesse Green (Vulture) somewhat disagrees with that assessment, declaring the play “a great and frank and still modern comedy,” finding much to commend in each of the performances from the “vividly intelligent supporting cast.”

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Considering this reception, “Present Laughter” looks like a strong contender for a Tony Awards nomination for Best Play Revival, especially considering the lackluster remounts seen earlier this season. The same goes for Kline, who won Tony Awards for his performances in the musicals “On the Twentieth Century” (1978) and “The Pirates of Penzance” (1981). He contended on the play side in 2004 for “Henry IV.”

On the distaff side, Nielsen — who after decades on Broadway finally earned her first Tony bid in 2013 for her performance in Best Play winner “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” — received the most praise and could well reap a Featured Actress nomination. And Smulders may have a fighting chance as that category often welcomes ingenues making their Broadway debuts.

On the technical side, scenic designer David Zinn, who won the Tony last year for his work on “The Humans,” could defend his title for his expertly detailed set. And Tony winner Susan Hilferty (“Wicked”) also received much critical acclaim for her period-evocative and seductive costumes.

Despite all of these likely nominations,  the production’s leader may miss out. While the Tony nominating committee will certainly remember von Stuelpnagel’s brilliant work at the helm of Best Play nominee “Hand to God,” many critics noted that “Present Laughter” needed tightening, especially given that it is a comedy with a fairly long running time of two and a half hours.

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