When you arrive at the American Airlines Theatre for a performance of Michael Frayn’s farce Noises Off, along with your Playbill, you will also be given a program for Nothing On, which is the play-within-the-play that comprises the evening’s bill of fare. Reading through this program, you will learn that Nothing On is by Robin Housemonger, is directed by Lloyd Dallas and stars Dotty Otley, Belinda Blair, and Garry Lejeune, heading a cast of nine. The opening night performance of this farce is just hours away, and we will be treated to the final tech rehearsal on a Monday in January at the Grand Theatre, Weston-super-Mare.
In the second act of three, we will witness a Wednesday matinee on February 13th at the Theater Royal, Ashton-under-Lyne, and in the third act on Saturday April 6th we will be at the Municipal Theatre, Stockton-On-Tees, where the “National Tour” finally staggers to its close.
The mock program for Nothing On will have you in stitches long before the curtain rises on Noises Off, for it contains bios of the cast that are as funny as the play they are performing in. It is confusing but amusing to read bios of actors who play characters in a play-within-a-play.
Michael Frayn’s double duty playwrighting job earned him over 500 New York performances in 1985, adding 350 more in 2001 and now it’s back on Broadway for the third time. It’s in for a limited run as part of Roundabout’s subscription season, but I’m predicting an extension and/or move will make it a contender for another long run, for it remains one of those farces like Charley’s Aunt, One Man Two Guvnors, and Bedroom Farce which have become staples for the regional theatres of America.
You will note that these three were written by British playwrights and that’s no accident. The Brits have always responded more favorably than we do to pants-falling-down, pratfall, pie in the face farces. Some of our better writers have tried- even the venerable Sidney Kingsley, known as a dramatist of substance, gave farce a try with Lunatics and Lovers but you won’t see that in its third revival, or its second. Audiences here too seem less willing to let the belly laughs roll. And British actors have usually been trained and conditioned differently than our Equity members, so it’s never been easy casting British farces with American actors. It took the brilliant Mark Rylance to turn the British import Boeing Boeing from a 23 performance flop in 1965 to a roaring hit in 2009.
All this prelude is by way of saying forget all of the above because the Roundabout, under the direction of Jeremy Herrin (known to us primarily by Wolf Hall, which was very different), has assembled a company of fine American actors who are collectively and individually hilarious.
Andrea Martin opens the play and gets a laugh on her very first line. She enters carrying a tray of sardines. In order to answer a ringing phone, she says to the phone: “No use your going on. I can’t open sardines and answer the phone at the same time. I’ve only got one pair of feet.” You had to be there. Ms. Martin has collected feet, legs, a body, hair and an accent that belong not to her, but to Dotty Otley, the star character actress she is playing, who in turn is playing “Mrs. Clackett” in the opening moments of Nothing On, the play within Noises Off. I don’t mean to confuse you, but to remain clear, you’ll have to become accustomed to these fine American actors playing British actors who in turn are playing characters or backstage crew of a farce that’s to start a national tour of Great Britain. It will turn out to be a perilous, but very funny journey.
Ms. Martin interrupts herself to chat with her director (Campbell Scott who is playing Lloyd Dallas). He’s out front, in the audience, where a director would be during a tech rehearsal. He patiently sorts things out, and the rehearsal continues with the entrance of Megan Hilty (Smash) as Brooke Ashton and David Furr as Gary LeJeune who are playing sexy actress “Vicki” and her boy friend “Roger Tramplemain.” Ms. Hilty has shopped for accessories to her characterization and arrives with one walk for Vicki and another (more of a lope) for Brooke Ashton. She’s also rented an accent which is unrecognizable, but it’s easy on the ears so it will do.\
Mr. Furr’s Gary is unable to complete a sentence, always beginning with assurance and ending with a “you know” or a mumble. I’ve never heard anyone do that so consistently, but Mr. Furr is in full command and after a while we laugh a lot at how it can turn a simple statement into a laugh line. Daniel Davis, still remembered fondly as the outspoken butler on the long running The Nanny TV series, is now playing a dotty old souse who can never quite remember his entrance cue, but whenever he does show up, he adds to the fun.
Tracy Chimo and Rob McClure are a couple of stage managers who will never be the same when this tour of Nothing On closes. Kate Jennings Grant and Jeremy Shamos complete the company who use all the tricks in the book to keep us in a good mood. Only occasionally, particularly in the early part of the second act does the writing tread some water, but soon enough the comical chaos returns and we’re back to being beguiled by the lunacy on stage.
It will be interesting to see if audiences continue to buy into this sort of madcap nonsense. As in all good farce, the major moments are all based on very real possible happenings, blown up to the requirements of farce. As I said earlier, American audiences have never been as responsive as the Brits to the off- the-wall shenanigans of the Crazy Gang, Monty Python, or the Goon Show or to the dozens of British bedroom farces that were so popular that a Comedy Theater was set aside in the West End for their exclusive use.
The audience that I was part of was wildly enthusiastic, as was I, but we’ll soon know if word of mouth will turn this into a genuine smash, which it deserves. With the world behaving badly at the moment, it might be a good time to seek some relief. I think you’ll find it on 42nd Street by visiting Michael Frayn’s irreverently funny farce.
Running Time: Two 2 hours and 25 minutes, including one intermission.
Noises Off plays through March 6, 2016 at Roundabout Theatre Company performing at The American Airlines Theatre – 227 West 42nd Street, in New York City. For tickets, call (212) 719-1300, or purchase them online.