‘Present Laughter’ review: Kevin Kline shines bright on stage

With all due respect to Noel Coward’s classic English comedies of the 1920s through 1940s, do they really merit being revived so regularly? Sure, they’re witty, classy and charming, but also insubstantial and tame by today’s standards, and not especially relevant anymore.

I suspect that we run into the plays so often because they contain great roles for actors, like the kooky medium Madame Arcati in “Blithe Spirit,” the sparring couple Amanda and Elyot in “Private Lives” and the vain stage actor Garry Essendine in “Present Laughter.”

Essendine has been played on Broadway by Coward (who loosely modeled the part on himself), George C. Scott, Frank Langella, and Victor Garber (as recently as 2010) — and now it’s Kevin Kline’s turn.

This marks Kline’s first appearance on Broadway since he played Cyrano (another popular role) a decade ago.

Set at Essendine’s London flat, the play shows the matinee idol trying to uphold his ego while dealing with his domestic staff, business colleagues, lovers and fans, including an aspiring young actress who just spent the night (and is quickly disposed of) and an overeager playwright.

Directed with a gentle hand by Moritz von Stuelpnagel (“Hand to God”), the production is pleasant but not especially interesting. There seems to have been no point in reviving the play other than to provide Kline with a star vehicle.

Admittedly, the role fits Kline like a glove, especially given his knack for hammy personalities.

He is careful not to overplay the comedy, with the intention of giving a fully rounded performance. His Essendine is a tired thespian with graying hair whose instinctual response to the chaos around him is to break into a soliloquy or dramatic pose.

Kristine Nielsen, in an animated air, nails every one of Coward’s barbs as Essendine’s all-knowing secretary. Cobie Smulders (“How I Met Your Mother”) makes a sleek and sexy Broadway debut as a woman engaged in multiple affairs, and Kate Burton is as assured as ever as Essendine’s estranged wife.

“Present Laughter” runs at the St. James Theatre through July 2. 246 W. 44th St., LaughterOnBroadway.com

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