Victor Garber, God bless him, can wear the daylights out of a dressing gown. He can even make an old one look…well, not new, exactly, but damned comfortable. And “comfortable” is the word that pops immediately into mind after experiencing the gentle, genial charms of the Roundabout’s Present Laughter, a comedy about aging ungracefully, the silken pleasures of decompensation, and the people we choose to grow old with, to the extent that we have any choice in the matter. Under the steady, only occasionally leaden hand of veteran comedy director Nicholas Martin, this faultlessly acted, psychologically pristine, almost excessively grounded production fuses Noël Coward’s most bohemian themes—the insupportable nature of marriage, the delicious hypocrisies of polite society—with his most boulevard instincts. It’s a sex farce that dismantles its own flamboyance before our eyes and ends up feeling strangely, unaccountably plausible. Laughter is indeed present throughout, but it’s a kind of background radiation.
In the foreground is Garry Essendine (Garber), aging divo and stage legend, for whom a life in the theater has become a never-never land of dependable, unchallenging gigs and casual sleepovers with disposable young admirers. He’s a human mirror, an actor who’s always acting—”watching myself go by,” he wistfully informs his latest young mistress, Daphne (Holley Fain), as he’s ushering her out of his life. A mock-Hamlet in his own mock-tragedy—in song, he claims to want to “get right back to nature/Assume a horizontal stature”—he’s still trying to play Peer Gynt, refusing to acknowledge that he’s ripe for Falstaff. But that doesn’t keep him from regularly banishing the villainous company he blames for his ruin. Of course, we see from the start that Garry can’t really be alone: Without company, without his self-generated intrigues and picaresques, he’d implode into the void within, the very nothingness that makes him such an attractive vacuum in the first place. Garry’s a deceptively tough role—a leading man who imperiously refuses to lead—and Garber, best known to TV and movie audiences for his fatherly supporting parts, makes Garry both commanding and marginal, a dominant nonentity. He plays Essendine’s famous mirror gag—every ring of the doorbell requires him to adjust his receding coif—with an ataractic quality that makes the maneuver feel less like a stagy bit and more like an untreatable condition. And his inverse-seduction scene with the vampire Joanna (a lusciously gelid Pamela Jane Gray), a sexually hungry, unforgivably “all-female” climber who threatens to break up the Essendine klatch, is a rare piece of perfectly earned, Swiss-watch scene work.
Of course, into every orderly Coward universe, a meteor of pure, luminous madness must plummet: Brooks Ashmanskas, that one-man comedy demolition squad recently seen in The Ritz, bounds in as Roland Maule, an unbalanced, young, experimental playwright fixated on Essendine. He says he’s from “Uckfield,” but he’s clearly from outer space. Literally bouncing off the walls—and the furniture, and his fellow actors—with flubbery antigravity, Maule, written as a destabilizing force, becomes almost terrifying in Martin’s production: The play’s humors have been so fastidiously balanced that the introduction of tthis juggernaut has a jaggedly unnerving effect, even as he furnishes the play’s broadest laughs. In fact, Ashmanskas almost feels like a vestige of some madder concept lurking behind the brute Deco opulence of Alexander Dodge’s ravishing set. But don’t worry: Though the chandelier may shudder a bit, it’s never in danger of crashing. That’s both a comfort and letdown, not unlike growing old.