Cobie Smulders and Kevin Kline star in Present Laughter, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, at Broadway's St. James Theatre.
Cobie Smulders and Kevin Kline star in Present Laughter, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, at Broadway's St. James Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

A true master class is taking place at the St. James Theatre, where the great Kevin Kline is making his first Broadway appearance in a decade in Noël Coward's Present Laughter. Contemporary attention spans aren't built for a play like this, a nearly three-hour drawing room sex farce from 1939 where the stakes are low and the tension nonexistent. But the work that Kline and his costars are doing — the cast also includes theater veterans Kate Burton and Kristine Nielsen as well as Broadway newbies Cobie Smulders and Tedra Millan — is so expert that it's easy to overlook the flaws of this way-too-leisurely amuse-bouche of a comedy.

Kline plays Garry Essendine, an aging playboy whose greatest love is himself. As the play begins, the art deco mansion of this great West End stage star has been infiltrated by the young socialite Daphne Stillington (Tedra Millan), one of Garry's many adoring admirers, who happens to have lost the key to her own apartment and ends up spending the night with Garry after meeting him at a soiree.

It's a situation that Garry's oddball servants (Matt Bittner and Ellen Harvey), tolerant secretary Monica (Nielsen), and steadfast ex-wife Liz (Burton) have encountered dozens of times in the past.

They, along with Garry's theatrical associates Harry (Peter Francis James) and Morris (Reg Rogers), make up a strange tight-knit family, whose objective is to keep Garry from his greatest fear: being alone. Morris, however, is in love with Harry's beautiful wife, Joanna (Smulders). As Garry prepares for an impending trip to Africa, where he will perform half-a-dozen plays in rotating repertory, he takes it upon himself to set things straight. But when Joanna shows up on Garry's doorstep one evening, claiming she, too, has lost her latchkey, all hell threatens to break loose.

Kristine Nielsen, Kate Burton, and Kevin Kline in a scene from the Broadway revival of Present Laughter.
Kristine Nielsen, Kate Burton, and Kevin Kline in a scene from the Broadway revival of Present Laughter.
(© Joan Marcus)

And it does, because in Kline's hands, the only thing Garry loves more than looking at himself in the mirror is a beautiful woman. This production of Present Laughter is driven not by Garry's outsize ego, but by his even larger libido. Watching the lengths to which Kline's Garry will go to initially resist — and eventually succumb to — the sizzling charms of both Millan's daffy Daphne and Smulders' smoldering Joanna — is a tour de force of both physical comedy and reaction. Coward described the role of this matinee idol (which he wrote initially for himself) as a "bravura part," and Kline, one of the American theater's great actors, was born to play him. He does it with all the comedic flair and panache we could want. And then some.

But there's more up the sleeves of his silk dressing gowns than just funny facial expressions. Kline finds a surprising depth in the role, too, one that perhaps Coward only hints at. The reason this Garry thrives so heavily on sex is because he's so afraid of getting old, losing his appeal, and becoming obsolete. When Kline obsessively stares at himself in the mirror (over and over and over), Garry is looking past the handsome face and more at the thinning hair and age lines. It's a fascinating take, one that gives the proceedings a little bit of gravity it wouldn't ordinarily have. This also eliminates the subtextual gay flirtation between Garry and Roland Maule, an aspiring young male playwright who wants Garry to take him under his wing. To compensate, Bhavesh Patel plays Roland as a full-on deranged madman, and it never really works.

Matching Kline is a tall order, but leading ladies Burton and Nielsen are his equals. Burton delivers a devilishly sly turn as Liz, Garry's protector and fixer, while Nielsen is dryer than a martini as Monica. And everyone looks dazzling in Susan Hilferty's sumptuous period costumes, the finest of the season. Similarly, David Zinn's glitzy, glamorous set gets as much entrance applause as the leading man.

What Moritz von Stuelpnagel's production could really use (especially in the first act) is a cup of coffee in place of those glasses of sherry they frequently consume. Much of the show feels strangely listless, which is surprising given that the cast is firing on all cylinders, and a major problem when you're doing comedy that needs to be played fast. Despite the slog of the 90-minute first act, the volume is turned all the way up to 11 for Act 2, and the show reaches its apex in pretty delightful ways. Kline and company know what they're doing, making it a nightcap you won't want to turn down.

Kevin Kline stars as Garry Essendine opposite Kate Burton as Liz Essendine.
Kevin Kline stars as Garry Essendine opposite Kate Burton as Liz Essendine.
(© Joan Marcus)