American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 6, $67-$152
There’s a reason why so many critics consider Michael Frayn’s 1982 farce, Noises Off, one of the funniest plays ever written; it is a nonstop hilarious riff on the presentation of theater itself, and in its latest incarnation, a Roundabout revival at the American Airlines Theatre, it is performed with pinpoint precision timing that will have you gasping in admiration even as you nearly fall out of your chair laughing. The three-act romp begins as a small company is in its final tech rehearsal for the world premiere of Robin Housemonger’s sex comedy Nothing On before opening night at the Grand Theatre in Weston-super-Mare. (A fake program for the imaginary Nothing On is slipped inside the Noises Off Playbill to heighten the reality of the fictional play-within-a-play; Housemonger is credited with such previous works as Briefs Encounter and Socks Before Marriage.) Director Lloyd Dallas (Campbell Scott) has a lot on his plate: The actors can’t remember their lines, and his star, the aging doyenne Dotty Otley (Andrea Martin), is confused about where the sardines are. The fictional Nothing On itself is a wicked sendup of British country-house drama: Dotty is Mrs Clackett, elderly housekeeper for the Brent family’s country home, where dapper house agent Roger (David Furr as Garry Lejeune) is attempting a tryst on the sly with ditzy blonde bombshell Vicky (Megan Hilty as Brooke Ashton) while the owners, milquetoast nosebleeder Philip Brent (Jeremy Shamos as Frederick Fellowes) and his wife, the practical Flavia (Kate Jennings Grant as Belinda Blair), arrive for their own secret rendezvous (secret from Inland Revenue, that is; they are avoiding the scourge of the British upper class: income tax). Then a burglar (Daniel Davis as alcoholic has-been Selsdon Mowbray) arrives to add to the confusion. Doors are slammed, entrances are missed, doors are slammed, lines are botched, props are misused, and yet more doors are slammed. As evening turns into morning, the cast and crew — which also includes tense and nervous assistant stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor (Tracee Chimo) and stage manager Tim Allgood (Rob McClure), who has a highly inappropriate last name — struggle to put it all together, for of course, the show must go on.
The first act is set up as if the audience is watching the rehearsal of Nothing On; for the second act, the living room is flipped around so the audience sees it from the other side, revealing the backstage shenanigans one month later at the Theatre Royal in Ashton-under-Lyne. (The wonderful sets are by Emmy and Tony winner Derek McLane.) Frayn (Copenhagen, Benefactors) and director Jeremy Herrin (Wolf Hall Parts 1 & 2) now reveal the behind-the-scenes madness that goes on during the first act. The audience has already learned all of the cues, the entrances and exits, but witnessing it from this vantage point is utterly fascinating. The cast and crew’s secret liaisons slowly emerge, and the melodramatics escalate as they enter or leave the play-within-a-play, resulting in some riotous physical comedy while also getting a little too bogged down and repetitive. But all of that is necessary to make the third act one of the smartest and funniest you’ll ever have the pleasure to experience. The show is now concluding its tour at the Municipal Theatre in Stockton-on-Tees, where the company is once again performing the first act. Only this time, all of the actor’s quirks and failures, inside jokes and relationship problems from the first two acts collide in a delirious extravaganza of fun and nonsense worthy of John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers. Martin (Pippin, My Favorite Year), Davis (Wrong Mountain, Talking Heads), Furr (The Importance of Being Earnest, Accent on Youth), Jennings Grant (The Lyons, Proof), Hilty (Wicked, 9 to 5: The Musical), and Shamos (Clybourne Park, The Assembled Parties) do an exceptional job switching between their dual roles, with Martin in particular excelling and Hilty (who will not be performing February 12-14) nearly stealing the show with her squeaky voice and absurdly mannered body positions. (Noises Off debuted on Broadway in 1983 with Dorothy Loudon, Victor Garber, Brian Murray, Deborah Rush, Douglas Seale, and Amy Wright and was revived in 2001 with Patti LuPone, Peter Gallagher, Faith Prince, T. R. Knight, and Katie Finneran. The 1992 Peter Bogdanovich film starred Carol Burnett, Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve, John Ritter, Nicollette Sheridan, Denholm Elliott, Julie Hagerty, Mark Linn-Baker, and Marilu Henner.) Herrin does a marvelous job of maintaining the frenetic pace while allowing the characters to develop their unique personalities; he has a ball playing with the audience’s expectations, keeping everyone on the edge of their seat, both gaping in wonder and trying not to fall over in laughter. And through it all are those doors.
In “A Glimpse of the Noumenal,” a fake condensed essay from Eros Untrousered — Studies in the Semantics of Bedroom Farce that appears in the Nothing On program, JG Stillwater writes, “A recurring and highly significant feature of the genre is a multiplicity of doors. If we regard the world on this side of the doors as the physical one in which mortal men are condemned to live, the world or worlds concealed behind them may be thought of as representing both the higher and more spiritual plane into which the postulants hope to escape, and the underworld from which at any moment demons may leap out to tempt or punish. When the doors do open, it is often with great suddenness and unexpectedness, highly suggestive of those epiphanic moments of insight and enlightenment which give access to the ‘other,’ and offer us a fleeting glimpse of the noumenal.” This second Broadway revival of Noises Off — the title refers to offstage sounds — is chock full of epiphanic moments that are as noumenal as they are phenomenal, in more than just the Kantian meaning. It gives the audience an inside look at the potential catastrophes that await live theater, yet performed to near perfection in a joyful tribute to the glory of the stage.