By Tulis McCall
There is no real purpose to Noises Off, making its third appearance on the Broadway stage, other than to give you a chance to laugh. Purpose enough for you? Michael Frayn has written a play that is a very slow car wreck – that car being the clown car at the circus, out of which tumble 18 or so clowns. Every character in this play is a certified clown, although each would deny it up to and on their deathbed. For the most part this cast has these characters buttoned down tighter than a ship’s canvas. THEY are having more fun than you can shake a stick at – so why should you not?
The “story” is that of an acting troupe out in the English nether regions at the beginning and conclusion of their tour. The play-within-the-play is Nothing On, and the program-within-the-program is worth a thorough read. The setting for the play is an English Manor house with three doors downstairs and three doors upstairs. The set alone lets you know that there will be many a mishap involving entrances and exits.
Dotty Otley (Andrea Martin) is, as her name suggests, a few sandwiches shy of a picnic. She is a British theatrical icon – come down a few pags in the world. In her own mind, however, where it only seats one, she is theatre royalty. Dotty is playing the maid of the manor, which is supposed to be empty while the owners, played by Frederick Fellowes (Jeremy Shamos) – a bit of a simpleton – and Belinda Blair (Kate Jennings Grant) who is only lacking a leather bustier and a whip, relax in Spain and avoid tax investigators. On the weekend in question Frederick and Belinda decide to return for a wee secret visit. However, it is also the weekend that their solicitor, played by Gary LeJeune (played with understated brilliance by David Furr) shows up with his secretary Vicki (Megan Hilty). There is the obligatory burglar played by Seldon Mowbray (Daniel Davis) and a never ending parade of plates of sardines.
Our first act is the final rehearsal for the play that opens in a matter of hours. It is overseen by its director Llyod Dallas (Campbell Scott) who is slowly losing his grip on the tiny whisp of sanity he still has. The play is in shambles, and the actors are still insisting on having input instead of following the direction. Doors won’t open, or won’t close. Entrances and exits are willy nilly. And there is the matter of a certain pair of contact lenses that pop out at the most inconvenient time leaving Vicki stranded where she stands and bringing the entire cast to a halt.
Our second act takes place later in the run where we see this finely tuned machine nearly collapse of its own accord. However, we watch all this from backstage where the “real” names of the actors are used and all the relationships are revealed. There is romance and philandering a plenty, and these people miss no opportunity for petty revenge in the middle of the performance.
The final act winds down with the cast and crew tumbling slowly to their demise until the curtain finally and literally comes down. By this act we, the audience, can hardly keep up with the elaborate dance these actors are executing. The blocking is dizzying, and you stare in wonder as these folks dazzle you with their moves. David Furr and Jeremy Shamos lead the pack with their slapstick, and Furr executes the BEST pratfall ever seen on a stage. At the other end of the scale, Ms. Hilty appears to be in a play all her own, out of step as a performer, which leaves her character in the lurch and causes the rhythm of the show to sputter once too often. In between is everyone else who ably remembers their lines and avoids bumping into the furniture – except when they must.
If you don’t care a whit for meaning or purpose or terribly deep thoughts – treat yourself to a bundle of laughs. It’s a little Monkey House, a little Marx Brothers and a soupçon of the best of Carol Burnett. A perfect confection for the Bridge and Tunnel crowd, of which there is no shortage.
Noises Off By Michael Frayn; directed by Jeremy Herrin
With: Andrea Martin (Dotty Otley), Campbell Scott (Lloyd Dallas), Tracee Chimo (Poppy Norton-Taylor), Daniel Davis (Selsdon Mowbray), David Furr (Garry Lejeune), Kate Jennings Grant (Belinda Blair), Megan Hilty (Brooke Ashton), Rob McClure (Tim Allgood) and Jeremy Shamos (Frederick Fellowes).
Sets by Derek McLane; costumes by Michael Krass; lighting by Jane Cox; sound by Christopher Cronin; music by Todd Almond; hair and wig design by Paul Huntley; comedy stunt coordinator, Lorenzo Pisoni; dialect consultant, Elizabeth Smith; production stage manager, Linda Marvel; production manager, Aurora Productions; general manager, Denise Cooper; associate managing director, Steve Dow; associate artistic director, Scott Ellis. Presented by Roundabout Theater Company, Todd Haimes, artistic director; Harold Wolpert, managing director; Julia C. Levy, executive director; Sydney Beers, general manager. Through March 6 at American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street, Manhattan; 212-719-1300, roundabouttheatre .org. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.