By Karen Isaacs
Noises Off is a farce about the problems of putting on and then continuing to perform a farce. Confused? You might be at the beginning, since the play opens with the cast rehearsing a scene and the director coming down the aisle to correct some business. But you will soon catch on.
Roundabout Theatre has assembled a fine cast for this production that runs through March 6 at the American Airlines Theater on 42nd Street.
The premise of the play is that a well-known older actress (Dotty Otley) has invested in a touring production of the farce Nothing On; it will tour the provinces and enhance her bank account, she hopes. In this typical British farce, there is great deal of innuendo but little sex. Instead there’s a lot about sardines (which seemingly are carried on and off stage frequently), door slamming, etc.
So first of all we see parts of the play’s first act at three times: the technical rehearsal right before opening, a month into the run, and the closing night (two months after opening).
What has caused the production to deteriorate over that period and affected the performances are the multiple relationships and misunderstandings among the cast.
But even during rehearsals, some of these performers have issues that exasperate the director, Lloyd Dallas.
So let’s see what is going on. Lloyd, the director, is apparently having affairs with both the assistant stage manager, Poppy, and Brooke Ashton, a very voluptuous young actress. Dotty, the leading lady, is having an affair with Garry Lejune, an actor in the company who is substantially younger than Dotty. Then there is Seldon Mowbray, an elderly actor known to drink who has a minor role and appears to be hard of hearing. Dotty has encouraged Lloyd to give Seldon a role. Belinda is an actress who seems to know all about the various relationships among the cast, Tim Allgood, the company and stage manager, and Frederick Fellowes, an actor whose wife has just left him.
The causes of much of the confusion is that Garry suspects Dotty is having an affair with Frederick, while Lloyd is trying to keep Brooke in the cast and spend some time with her.
Act one sets this all up; we see parts of the first act of the play which is not going at all smoothly in the technical rehearsal (the rehearsal aimed at smoothing out entrances, exits, lights, the set, props, etc.) Doors don’t open or shut properly, Dotty has trouble remembering which props to enter or exit with, etc. Tim has been awake for 48 hours putting up the set and is dead on his feet. Adding to Lloyd’s exasperation is that Garry starts questioning the motivation for carrying a box off-stage in an extremely inarticulate way, Brooke stops the action when she loses a contact lens, and Frederick also stops the rehearsal for inane reasons, but always apologetic.
Act two shows us backstage a month later. Lloyd is making a surprise visit to see Brooke who is threatening to leave the cast, Poppy has some important news to share with Lloyd, and Dotty is locked in her dressing room because Garry thinks she is cheating on him when in reality she had been trying to cheer up Frederick. Due to all of this, various sabotages occur that make the on-stage performances (which we don’t see) even less comprehensible.
The shorter third act, shows the closing performance, where all pretense of doing the play seems to have disappeared.
Noises Off has always been a favorite comedy for me. It’s written by Michael Frayn, better known for his more serious plays (Copenhagen, Benafactors), novels, screenplays and translations of Chekhov and other Russian plays. I’ve enjoyed multiple productions and the 1992 film that starred Carol Burnett as Dotty, Christopher Reeve as Garry, Michael Caine as Lloyd, John Ritter as Frederick, Julie Hagerty as Poppy and others.
I wish I could rave about this production. It has a terrific cast: Andrea Martin as Dotty, Campbell Scott as Lloyd, Megan Hilty as Brooke, Tracee Chimo as Poppy, and among others, Rob McClure as Tim.
As directed by Jeremy Herrin, there is a lot of physical comedy; perhaps even too much. In act one, Brooke crawls down the stairs, in act 3 Garry falls through the bannister.
But it is some of the performances that most bothered me. Farce requires exaggeration; no one will dispute that, but in this case some of the performances were so exaggerated and idiosyncratic that they did not work. Unfortunately Megan Hilty as Brooke is most subject to this direction. Brooke isn’t just a voluptuous, slightly inept actress but someone whose stylized walk, stance, gestures and line readings go way beyond caricature. Yes, Lloyd may have cast her for her figure (the role requires a sexy young woman), but you cannot believe any, even a semi-professional company, hiring her. Garry, played by David Furr, also at times is too over-the-top.
Even Andrea Martin, a gifted comedienne, is given too much physical humor.
Yet, sometimes it works. Rob McClure’s Tim literally shakes when he has to substitute on stage for Seldon. Daniel Davis gets every bit of humor out of Seldon, the veteran actor who drinks and is hard of hearing. Campbell Scott plays the put-upon director without every going overboard even as chaos reigns around him. And Tracee Chimo as Poppy has that look of quiet desperation.
The difference between farce and burlesque can be subtle and I got the distinct feeling that director Herrin crosses it multiple times in this production.
Derek McLane has given us a fine set: the first and third acts are the set for the Tudor style house of the farce; act two shows us the backstage of the set.
But even this less-than-perfect production of Noises Off is good fun with lots of laughs.
Noises Off is at the American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street through March 6. Tickets are available roundabouttheatre.org