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'Noises Off' - Dizzingly Funny Backstage Farce

Jeremy Shamos, Kate Jennings Grant, David Furr, Andrea Martin, and Campbell Scott in Noises Off
(©Joan Marcus)

Having the inspired zaniness of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off back on Broadway for the start of 2016 couldn’t be more welcome. The play premiered in the U.K. in 1982 and one year later arrived on Broadway. The piece is considered, at this juncture, the quintessential backstage farce, and in Jeremy Herrin’s splendid new production, which opened last night at Roundabout Theatre’s American Airlines Theatre, Noises Off once again inspires gales of laughter from theatergoers.

Frayn’s conceit for the show couldn’t be more inspired. In the play’s first act, audiences watch as a second-rate troupe of British actors bumble their way through a late night dress rehearsal for a bottom drawer sex farce, Nothing On. Things are so bad with the idiosyncratic company that they can barely make it through their first act.

After its intermission, Noises Off flashes forward one month and reveals the goings on backstage as the company of Nothing On performs in Ashton-under-Lyme. Romantic entanglements among the cast and crew and the actors' personal foibles mean that what had not gone smoothly in rehearsal has deteriorated even further. Noises Off flashes forward six weeks more in its third act, and by the time the company is winding down their tour in Stockton-on-Tees, Nothing On is a shambles.

The joy and hilarity of Noises Off comes from the lunacy that Frayn reveals in the show’s second and third acts. For instance, actress Dotty Otley, played by the marvelous Andrea Burns, is having an affair with one of the show’s leads, the dimwitted Garry Lejeune. After their affair sours, they do their utmost to undermine the other onstage and off. She goes so far as to tie his shoes together, forcing him to hop through the intricate staging of the play-within-a-play, and during this and other sequences, David Furr proves to be a deft physical comedian.

Frayn further ups the ante on the mayhem on stage and off as the characters’ frailties and idiosyncrasies come into play. The company’s most senior member Selsdon Mowbray, played by Daniel Davis with befuddled sweetness, is hard of hearing, terribly self-involved, and an alcoholic. The combination proves to have its own set of antic ramifications on Nothing On performances.

The same can be said of blonde bombshell Brooke Ashton’s lack of talent and vapidity. This is an actress who knows how to do two things. She can look stunning and perform by rote. When things start to go awry with the show she’s in, she simply barrels forward as if nothing has happened, and in what might be the show-stealing performance among a group of terrific comic performances, Megan Hilty plays Brooke to the hilt. One of the funniest moments in the production is catching a glimpse of Hilty's Brooke as she stands in the frame of a door that’s supposed to be shut mouthing the other actor’s lines to anticipate her cue.

Co-starring with this quartet are Frederick Fellowes and Belinda Blair, played with zeal by Jeremy Shamos and Belinda Blair, and attempting to control some of the mayhem is director Lloyd Dallas (a fine turn from Campbell Scott). He’s assisted by the show’s stage manager, the endearingly vulnerable Poppy (Tracee Chimo) and company manager Tim (Rob McClure). Tim eventually has to go on for one of the actors and when he does, McClure proves pricelessly funny as he quakes and quivers from head to toe while reading lines of a page from the script that’s fluttering uncontrollably in his hand.

As if the antics of Noises Off themselves were not enough, the show’s made giddier by the contributions of scenic designer Derek McLane, who envisions Nothing On as being performed in a two-story Tudor house outfitted with gaudy 1970s chic; and costume designer Michael Krass, who channels the worst of the period’s garish fashions with comic flair. Even songwriter Todd Almond gets in on the delectable merriment of this production, providing some marvelously cheesey theme music for the play that falls apart in the marvelously dizzying romp of Noises Off.

---- Andy Propst

Noises Off plays at the American Airlines Theatre (227 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: roundabouttheatre.org.