Tony nominee Michael Cumpsty, left is at the center of a “vortex of neurosis,” as Nöel Coward’s “Present Laughter” comes to Two River Theater in a production directed by “Frasier” co-creator David Lee, right.
By TOM CHESEK
Just about one year ago, actor Michael Cumpsty then a Tony nominee for his role as Judy Garland’s accompanist in the Broadway engagement of “End of the Rainbow” stood on the stage of Red Bank’s Two River Theater and introduced the project that will bring me back to Red Bank, which is where I want to be.
The project in question is “Present Laughter,” the 1942 comedy by the multifaceted Sir Noël Coward, and a play that Cumpsty described as being about an aging matinee idol, who throws everyone around him into a vortex of neurosis… kind of like [my] life.
Beginning Saturday and for the next three weekends, the British-born veteran of more than 20 Broadway shows and screen parts that include Nucky Thompson’s associate Father Ed Brennan on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” steps into the role of Garry Essendine: frothy farceur, master manipulator, debonair devil, and a character written by Coward as “a bravura part” for himself.
Cumpsty, who shares a Middletown home with Two River Theater Company artistic director John Dias, made his Two River debut in Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” in 2011. In “Present Laughter,” he lords over an unofficial family unit of Essendine associates that comprises secretary Monica (fellow Tony nominee Veanne Cox), producer Hugo (Mark Capri), manager Morris (James Riordan) and ex-wife Liz (Kaitlin Hopkins) on the threshold of a grueling African tour. Directing the large cast is a master of ensemble television comedy, multiple Emmy winner David Lee of “Frasier” and “Wings” fame.
The Drama Desk at redbankgreen spoke to Cumpsty about following in the bedroom-slippered footsteps of the formidable Coward (plus dozens of other grand actors of stage and screen), as he explores the essence of Essendine.
redbankgreen: About a year ago, you stood on the stage at Two River and jokingly compared yourself to your character in “Present Laughter” as a sort of Typhoid Mary of neurosis. You didn’t really mean that now, did you?
MICHAEL CUMPSTY: Not exactly, no. It’s an odd play. It’s easy to misread it as a portrait of an egotistical, silly burden and his hangers-on. Apparently Coward was aware that, because he himself originated the part on stage, he created sort of an incomplete portrait… he relied on his own fame, on the audience’s perception of him, to flesh out the character in a way that’s not always evident on the page.
How did you happen to arrive at this play as your next project in Red Bank? Was this something that you’d had a notion to tackle for some time?
It was John’s idea. We’d both seen the Frank Langella production, which was a production that didn’t entirely add up to me, despite the fact that Frank was just masterful and really, really funny in the part. I guess that in the end I didn’t believe that the core group of other characters was the most important thing in the world to him. For the play to make sense to me, that’s a crucial thing, and one that kind of isn’t on the page as written. You have to find other ways in which to put that across.
I watched a video of that production again, which is something that I normally don’t do when I’m taking on a part. And I admire Frank Langella tremendously; I had the pleasure of working with him on a couple of film projects. But I’m just not going to be as funny as Frank was in this play.
I’m looking at some of the many actors who played this character after Coward Peter O’Toole, Albert Finney, Ian McKellen, George C. Scott and I can imagine them all putting their own signature on it, bringing a bit of themselves to it. And Clifton Webb, I’m thinking, simply brought the full Mr. Belvedere. How have you made yourself comfortable in the dressing gown of Garry Essendine?
Frankly, he’s a very unattractive character, I think. It’s not that I’m against playing characters that I don’t find attractive, but I can only do it if I can find a sort of balance a purpose to what the character does and why he is the way he is. For me, Garry is as much an emotional tent-pole for the people around him as he is an irritant. You just have to make peace with the fact that the audience is only going to see you acting badly.
I’m trying to portray him as a sort of paterfamilias to these characters. To me, if the play’s not on a trajectory toward Garry’s getting back with the Liz character, and re-knitting the core group of characters together, then it’s not working for me.
I’d love it to be as truthful as possible, within the context of the character. His rationale has to be honest. I has to be grounded in the mutual respect and trust between the characters in spite of the obvious betrayal that arises from sleeping with a friend’s wife.
I’m aware that this production was announced before you had a director attached to the project. Have you and David Lee been on the same page about the way that Garry should be played since he came on board, or did it merit some discussion between you two?
David’s been very keen on that from the get-go. We’re trying to go through it step by step, to achieve that balance that I talked about a moment ago, particularly in Garry’s final tantrum.
Well, we look forward to the tantrums, the betrayals, and all the things that make this role one that so many great actors have sunk their teeth into. What do you have lined up after this engagement at Two River?
I went out to L.A. recently, which I actually haven’t done in about 14 years, to see my agents there and try to make an effort to pick up some more film and television work. I haven’t needed to go there in recent years, because I’ve stayed very busy with stage work and with film projects that are produced on the east coast or elsewhere.
But there’s been a trend recently, where a lot of the kinds of parts that I might have gotten in the past are now being given to TV and movie actors with more of a celebrity profile. I’d like to have shot at those parts myself again.
“Present Laughter“goes up in the first of five previews on Saturday, June 1; opens on Friday, June 7 (that show is SOLD OUT) and runs through June 23 with a mix of matinee and evening performances. Tickets ($20 – $42 adults) and details on special performances can be obtained by taking it here.
On June 10, the Two River Theater plays host to “Frasier: Unplugged,” a salute to the classic sitcom in which David Lee joins series co-stars David Hyde Pierce and Peri Gilpin for an evening of anecdotes, insights and audience Q&A. Tickets for the 8 pm presentation start at $50 (with a $250 VIP option including pre-show reception with the stars), and you can get them right here.