In the current Broadway revival of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter, Kevin Kline stars as Garry Essendine, a self-obsessed actor in the midst of a mid-life crisis—a part Coward played himself in a 1958 limited engagement at the Belasco Theatre. In the playwright’s signature style, the leading man finds himself caught between fawning ingénues, crazed playwrights, and unexpected twists.
Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, the production began previews March 10 at Broadway’s St. James Theatre, marking the 63rd time that a Coward play or musical has been seen on Broadway since the celebrated playwright made his debut with The Vortex in 1925. Ahead of Present Laughter’s official opening on April 5, Playbill caught up with the principal cast to ask them: What was your first encounter with Coward?
Three-time Tony nominee Burton made her Broadway debut as Daphne in the 1982 production of Present Laughter, starring and directed by George C. Scott. The actor returns to the play—the only complete Coward piece she’s ever performed in—35 years later in the role of Liz Essendine.
“I’d graduated from drama school the day before, so it was a pretty sweet way to begin [my professional career]” recalls Burton. “I’d only auditioned for the role two weeks before so I knew how blessed I was to have this incredible job.”
“I met some of my best friends on that show: Dana Ivey, Nathan Lane, Jim Piddock, and I met my future husband—the production stage manager Michael Ritchie. It’s always been a play that was very close to my heart. … It was also the first time that my father, Richard Burton, saw me onstage. I had been shy about him coming to drama school.”
“[Back then] I thought Present Laughter was sweet, fun, and frolicsome,” says the actor. “But now I realize what a brilliantly written play it is with such complex characters.”
The Wolves star makes her Broadway debut as young ingénue Daphne in Present Laughter, but it’s not her first time performing Coward’s work—nor this play.
“My first professional play was Present Laughter at Hubbard Hall,” says the actor. “When I was a junior at the University of Michigan, my professor brought me upstate to do the play in this same part alongside another actor named Kevin [McGuire]. I was still in college and it was the first time I was getting paid to do theatre, so it’s a very special play to me.
“It feels too perfect to be playing this part—the first part I ever played,” she continues. “It feels very natural.”
Two-time Tony winner and Oscar winner Kevin Kline first fell in love with Coward after seeing the 1969 Broadway production of Private Lives with Tammy Grimes and Brian Bedford. “It was brilliant, delicious, and delightful,” he says.
Kline returns to the Broadway stage for the first time in ten years to star in Present Laughter, but has had his sights on a revival, and the role of Garry Essendine, for some time.
“I wanted to play that part—it’s so much fun and it’s so funny,” says Kline. According to the show’s producer, Jordan Roth once he heard that Kline was interested in doing the play, he didn’t have to think too long before a Broadway production was in the works.
The revival marks Kline’s first time performing in a play by the famed playwright, ever. “This is my first Coward play,” says Kline. “Which is part of what makes it so enticing.”
Avengers star Smulders was a 20-year old high school graduate when she first encountered Coward. She was trying to decide whether to pursue acting or go to college and study marine biology, and came across Private Lives—making her a fan of Coward’s work for life.
“I decided that I wanted to act professionally, so I was taking classes and [during one] I did the balcony scene from Coward’s Private Lives,” says the actor. “I didn’t understand it! Or, I thought I understood but now I understand it a lot better… But I became a huge fan of Coward from then on.”
Like many actors, Nielsen first performed in a Coward play as an undergrad drama student at North Western University. “During our fourth year as acting students, we did nothing but comedy,” says the Tony nominee. “I performed one of Coward’s one-acts and it was so fun to do. We had a great time.”
Nielsen loved Coward’s comedy, but has never had the opportunity to revisit his work in the U.S., as “there are so many wonderful Brits who come over and do it,” says the actor. “Then this opportunity came up.”
Kevin Kline, Cobie Smulders and more tell audiences what to look forward to in Present Laughter:
Present Laughter is scheduled to play through July 2 at the St. James, located at 246 West 44th Street. Tickets are on sale at Ticketmaster.com, by calling (877) 250-2929, or in person at the St. James Theatre Box Office.