Saturday, January 16, 2016

Broadway Review—Michael Frayn's "Noises Off"

Noises Off
Written by Michael Frayn; Directed by Jeremy Herrin
Opens January 14, 2016
American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Megan Hilty, David Furr and Jeremy Shamos in Noises Off (photo: Joan Marcus)
One of the funniest plays of this or any year, Michael Frayn’s fiendishly clever Noises Off (first on Broadway in 1983, then again in 2001) is a farcical deconstruction of the first rank whose set-up is simple: actors stumble through a rehearsal of something called Nothing On as their incredulous director wonders whether they will actually make it through the first performance the following night.

The genius of Noises Off is that Frayn's characters don't just run around and slam doors for two-plus hours: they do much more, as the three acts slyly feed off one another so that, in Act II, we see what goes on backstage during a performance, as the actors' personal lives intrude backstage (but never onstage) to brilliant comic effect. Later, Act III presents the play-within onstage again, now raggedly played after months of exhausting touring: everything that can does go wrong, even more frantically than in Act I.

In Frayn's expert hands, the laughs keep coming...and coming: he has written with such controlled comic intensity for his nine actors—seven players, one director and the stage assistant having an affair with him (other offstage pairings lead to more hilarious complications onstage and backstage)—that it's possible to miss something happening to some characters because one is following others. 

Director Jeremy Herrin's superlative staging mines Frayn's crammed script for every one of its minute details, all on Derek McLane's extraordinary set, which becomes yet another character with its very slammable doors and its slippery staircases onstage and backstage that are cause many a pratfall. If Act III dips somewhat, it's only because Act I is a procession of wonderfully observed mishaps while the largely wordless Act II is an unequaled display of slapstick that even the best mimes could only hope to equal. Act III, conversely, rehashes what we've already seen while showing the implausibility of what occurs onstage since we've already seen the farcical machinery at work, so some of the entrances and exits don't make sense. But really, in the end, who cares?

Herrin—whose two-part production of Wolf Hall was a highlight of last season—again shows his unsurpassed ability to corral a large cast into an imposing, singleminded juggernaut. As Belinda, an accomplished, haughty actress, Kate Jennings Grant remains delightfully levelheaded throughout the ever-increasing lunacy. As Tim, the befuddled stagehand roped into understudy duties, Rob McClure again shows off his physical comedy flair from the ill-fated Chaplin musical a few seasons back: his entire body shaking and quaking in fear is priceless hilarity.

If Daniel Davis gives soused, over-the-hill star Selsdon Mowbray (a great name!) an irresistibly tainted aura of a past master gone to seed, only Tracee Chimo marks a sour note by overplaying how pathetic assistant Poppy is, making her far less funny and poignant than she should be. As the play-within's actors, clueless Garry and wimpy Frederick, David Furr and Jeremy Shamos provide endless chortles while mangling lines (Garry) and getting nose bleeds whenever things get too hectic (Frederick).

As aging leading lady Dotty, Andrea Martin is deliciously daffy whether wielding a phone, a newspaper or a plate of sardines (all of which figure heavily in the play-within), and Campbell Scott is winningly sardonic as director Lloyd, juggling his own career and his fraught relationships with Poppy and Brooke, the bimbo to end all blond bimbos. 

Brooke is enacted so commandingly by Megan Hilty that she may plausibly claim the title of our best stage comedienne. Not only does Hilty do the obvious things right—she looks stunning in her barely-there wardrobe and acts as brainlessly as any Marilyn Monroe double should—but she projects subtlety in her movements, the stiff gesticulations, the mouthing of other actors' words so she knows when to speak next, or the crawling around the stage whenever she loses a contact lens.

As peerless as the cast of this unmissable revival of Noises Off is, Hilty provides a comedic acting class by herself.

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