This my third time seeing Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, considered by many to be the perfect comedy. My first encounter with this piece of zaniness was in the early 1980s on London’s West End. I laughed so much I couldn’t catch my breath. Years later I could still quote lines. Since then, the play has had an award winning run on Broadway with a cast headed up by the terrific Dorothy Louden. It was also made into a considerably-less memorable movie with Carol Burnett. Now it has returned to the Great White Way with an ensemble that includes Andrea Martin, Campbell Scott, Tracee Chimo, Daniel Davis, David Furr, Kate Jennings Grant, Megan Hilty, Rob McClure and (my cousin) Jeremy Shamos. The script has been altered somewhat and it feels a little longer, but it remains a funny lighthearted event, perfect for these stressful times.
The story is structured as a farce within a farce. The actors mentioned above star as the cast and crew of the touring company of Nothing On. Audience members would do well to read the yellow program within a program for important backstory and a few additional giggles. For example, it becomes clear that the reason Ms. Hilty’s Brooke Ashton as Vicki keeps mouthing all the words of her co-stars is that she’s never played a part with lines before. We also learn that several of these people worked together in a long running television series, which explains their remarkable familiarity with one another.
But the joy of a first-rate physical comedy like this is that you don’t have to know anything in particular, except maybe the properties of gravity. That’s why Act II — which of the three relies most on slight of hand, gestures and easily misinterpreted silhouettes — is by far the strongest. The actors are astonishingly in tune throughout and provide hilarious points that a child could understand. (In fact, three groups of school children had thoroughly enjoyed themselves at the matinee the day of my attendance.) Credit should be given to director Jeremy Herrin and stunt coordinator Lorenzo Pisoni for the orchestration of these fabulous moments.
As Dotty Otley, the always-excellent Andrea Martin seems to be having a blast. Her timing is impeccable and her shifts from hapless housekeeper to the frazzled leading actress who portrays her are brilliant. David Furr manages to deliver his character’s many drifting lines with subtle difference that keeps him from being one-note. (Ms. Hilty could take a lesson here.) Kate Jennings Grant provides a centering influence as the closest thing to a straight man in this circus. Jeremy Shamos is spot-on as usual. (See you at Thanksgiving, Jer.) The surprising weak link is Tracee Chimo as overwhelmed stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor. She tries to be farcical, which is one layer too many. Like an improv that starts with an unbelievable premise, her performance quickly becomes forced and simply not funny.
The Roundabout Theatre Company’s Noises Off is playing at the American Airlines Theater through March 13, 2016. Given the amount of energy required by the cast, it will remain a limited run. If you are in the mood for some high-spirited fun, it’s the perfect choice. Visit http://www.roundabouttheatre.org for tickets and information.