Andrea Martin is a pistol. Of course I remember her from “SCTV” and many supporting roles in films going back to being a sorority sister (and murder victim) in Black Christmas (1974); it was her Tony Award-winning performance in the 2013 Pippin revival that renewed my interest in her. And now here she is in Roundabout Theatre’s Noises Off, a revival of the 1982 Michael Frayn farce about a troupe of actors attempting to put on a show where mishaps abound. Ms. Martin was my reason for wanting to see this production, but she is but one piece of the puzzle that makes this Noises Off so winning and jaw-droppingly funny.
Noises Off premiered in London in 1982 in a production that would end up running for five years; it premiered on Broadway in 1983 and ran a year and a half; Peter Bogdanovich directed a starry 1992 film version starring Carol Burnett and Michael Caine that was rather half baked; and a 2001 Broadway revival starring Patti LuPone ran for nearly a year. The piece is presented in three acts with an intermission between the first two. For the first hour we see the final tech/dress rehearsal of Nothing On, the play within the play, important for letting us see how the piece should be played while also helping us get acquainted with the characters; the second act has the set turned around so we can witness a perilous matinee performance backstage when a lover’s quarrel in the cast causes all kind of havoc; the final act shows us the piece as the audience is experiencing it at the end of the tour where it has degenerated into an all-out mess. The play runs over two and a half hours, but its overlength can easily be forgiven because of how the time it takes to set everything up is necessary and pays off with big laughs.
Andrea Martin plays Dotty Otley, the older television star who has invested in Nothing On; she is a terrific highlight, as to be expected, playing a British actress who in turn is playing the slummy part of the maid Mrs. Clackett in Nothing On, the switch from her thick cockney speech as the maid to her refined and austere British accent as Dotty quite jarring and funny. Campbell Scott is Lloyd, her stern director; Mr. Scott has the unenviable job as the straight man to his gang of players, the quite serious director fed up with the shenanigans going on around him; it is all the more funny to see him be silly and look foolish when he is brought into the act by the end of the play because of how much he has resisted it. David Furr is Garry, Dotty’s on-again, off-again lover; Mr. Furr is particularly delightful as Garry, the pretentious actor who says a lot of words without really saying anything when he isn’t performing his part in the play. Megan Hilty is Brooke Ashton, a young blonde theatre novice in her first speaking role; Ms. Hilty appears to be having a ball playing Brooke as a bad actress, posing awkwardly, walking with her feet wide apart like a lumberjack, and mouthing the words of her co-stars; she appears to be a perky, pretty blonde, but she sticks strictly to her script even when everything around her falls apart and she should be adjusting to what is going on. Tracee Chimo is enjoyable fragile as Poppy, the harried assistant stage manager and sometime girlfriend of the director; Kate Jennings Grant is Belinda, a team player trying to keep the cast together; Jeremy Shamos is Frederick, a rather dim and slow actor who has spontaneous nosebleeds whenever he is around violence; Rob McClure is Tim, the company and stage manager (as well as electrician, standby, and assuming a host of other duties); and Daniel Davis is Selsdon, the aging and unreliable alcoholic whom everyone tries to keep away from booze.
A humorous touch is the inclusion of a program for Nothing On, the fictitious play being performed within Noises Off, as an insert in the Playbill. Biographies are provided for all of the actors as well as author “Robin Housemonger,” sharing space with a tongue-in-cheek analysis of the bedroom farce genre as well as fun facts about realtors and sardines. So much insight about the characters can be gleaned from these bios, though it isn’t necessary to read them before the show; I read them afterwards and laughed, thinking back to moments in the play.
Director Jeremy Herrin puts his actors through their paces to be sure with a speed that only escalates during the second and third acts. There are so many moments that succeed or fail based on precise timing that I would think the show could be a nightmare to direct; during a post-show talkback Ms. Hilty mentioned that they rehearsed the piece slowly, building up speed as they went along to get to the fever pitch at which they are now performing. With no many slamming doors and props that must find themselves in so many different places, Mr. Herrin and his cast are to be commended for pulling it all off without a hitch; not effortlessly, mind you, as it looks like everyone is working very hard with tremendous focus.
This revival of Noises Off is frighteningly engaging, so much so that I found myself wincing and ducking as characters slipped, narrowly missed being attacked by an ax, and doors were slammed in their faces. This kind of slapstick, comic violence makes me extremely anxious (it brings to mind the 1985 Tom Hanks/Shelly Long film The Money Pit as well as The Three Stooges, neither my cup of tea), but I can recognize the supreme timing and talent it takes to pull off this kind of farce. It’s unfortunate that this Roundabout show is a limited run as I can’t imagine a more lively and gripping production as the dangerously funny one bestowed upon us here.
**** out of ****
Noises Off continues through to March 13th in the American Airlines Theatre at 227 W. 42nd St. (between 7th & 8th Ave.) in Manhattan, and more information can be found at http://www.roundabouttheatre.org/