Though it's rather frequently revived, Noël Coward's Present Laughter is a difficult play to warm to. It came at the first crisis point of his career, when he began to be criticized for lack of substance, or lack of social engagement, which were regarded as the same thing to left-wing critics of the 1930s. Consequently, Garry Essendine (Victor Garber), the Coward figure in this play, comes up against a puling, earnest young playwright, Roland Maule (Brooks Ashmanskas) who levels the same criticisms against Essendine—who makes short work of him, of course.
Maule is written as a complete buffoon, and Ashmanskas does the kind of unfocused, over-the-top physical clowning that can impress some audience members with its sheer brute strength, but such low farce obscures the pressing question Coward has raised about his own art. Essendine heatedly tells Maule that he should play butler roles in a repertory company, learn something about how a play is constructed, write 20 plays and then maybe, just maybe, see if someone might put on the 21st play on some Sunday evening. This emphasis on craft is borne out in the play itself, which is presented in a classic three acts with two intermissions, a structure that allows for certain rarified pleasures.
As a running gag, Maule's handshake is so strong that he sends everyone he meets down on one knee in pain throughout the first and second act. At the end of the second act, a society dowager (Alice Duffy) is introduced, a lady of considerable years, and when Maule goes to shake her hand, he goes down on one knee in pain. You could get a fairly big laugh with this payoff if you had it happen after Maule and his death-grip have been established, or even at the end of the first act, but to be so used to this running gag and then get the pay-off at the end of the second act, two hours in, shows how masterly Coward's construction can be.
Otherwise, there are some unpleasant things to deal with here. The Art Deco meets T.J. Maxx set design by Alexander Dodge is so exuberantly ugly that it exerts a certain negative fascination; thankfully, the second and third acts take place at night, with dim lights obscuring Dodge's more flagrant insults to the eye.
There's a tasteless thread running through Coward's sensibility that is aligned to his heartless side: Essendine is said to have flopped in a show titled, "Pity the Blind," which just misses being funny and winds up being mildly offensive (there are also a few stray remarks about Africa in the third act that are queasy-making). The so-called female "parasites" swirling around Essendine are all stock parts: the loyal secretary (Harriet Harris), the loyal wife (Lisa Banes), the selfish temptress (Pamela Jane Gray), the fresh ingénue (Holley Fain). All of the actresses are well cast and do what they can, especially Gray, who is believably ruthless, but there's something about these women that never rings true.
Garber, who played this role to acclaim in a production at the Huntington Theatre in 2007, does a perfectly competent imitation of Coward, but without the waspish high style that would give it the bite it needs. In the end, Present Laughter is the sort of play that expects us to delight in the "I'm always acting!" egocentricity of the star performer, and in this respect it is fatally old-fashioned, not amusing enough, and never honest enough to be accurate about a subject that looks more shadowy today than it could have in 1939.