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Theatre in Review: Noises Off (Roundabout Theatre Company/American Airlines Theatre)

Daniel Davis, Kate Jennings Grant, Andrea Martin, Campbell Scott, Megan Hilty. Photo: Joan Marcus

There are so many delightful people doing so many hilarious things in Noises Off that one hardly knows where to begin. Then again, how can one not start with Andrea Martin? As Dotty Otley, erstwhile television star caught in the rattletrap tour of a seedy sex farce -- the nudge-nudge, wink-wink title is Nothing On -- she raises suffering to a high comic art. When we first meet her, she is engaged in a pitched battle with the on-stage phone that she must answer while simultaneously trying to handle a newspaper and plate of sardines, both of which she can be guaranteed to forget. Contrasting an aggressively nasal Cockney character accent with her own chesty RADA vocal tone and loping about the stage like an overburdened camel, she is the very soul of one who has Seen It All. (Hearing her mutter to herself, in a voice intended at least for the role of Hecuba, "I take the sardines; no, I leave the sardines; no, I take the sardines," is to know delight.) Later, convinced that her younger lover is about to leave her, she emerges from her dressing room, clad in a silk robe and scarf, and presses herself against a wall in an exaggerated pose of despair, Norma Desmond ready for her final close-up. And, trapped on stage in a performance that has descended into chaos, she acquires a dazed look and quietly moans, "Where are we?"-- calling down an enormous laugh at the depth of her woe. There surely is no actress with more solid comic instincts than Martin, who is in clover here.

Providing a total contrast, except in laughs, is Megan Hilty, as Brooke, the production's buxom, blind-as-a-bat ingénue. Cast in Nothing On as the blonde vacuum who exists to be divested of her skimpy dresses, she enters, crosses downstage, extends her right arm, and delivers the most exquisitely wooden line readings you've ever heard. (She often seems to be counting how many steps until she hits her marks, and, as often as not, silently mouths her scene partner's lines.) She also has a disconcerting tendency to zone out when the conversation doesn't focus on her, and can be counted on to pop a contact lens at the most inopportune moment, sending her fellow actors scrambling on all fours in search of it. Best of all, Brooke cannot accommodate any unplanned-for developments -- skipped lines, missed entrances -- meaning she can only barrel ahead with her lines, no matter how little sense they now make. Playing an inhabitant of the lower end of the IQ scale, Hilty gives one of her smartest comic performances.

As the production's hapless leading man (and Dotty's furiously jealous beau), David Furr is a marvel of incomprehension, furtively combing in his mustache and holding his colleagues hostage while making speeches that fail to contain a single complete, coherent sentence. He is especially amusing when, his rage aroused, he keeps catching Dotty backstage in what appear to be sexually compromising situations. And, as the production's chief punching bag, he takes some mighty spills, including a trip down a staircase that is surely the most spectacular pratfall you've ever seen. (The actor Lorenzo Pisoni, who grew up with the circus, designed the play's many strenuous physical stunts.) Similarly, Jeremy Shamos, as a tragically oversensitive featured player constantly seeking motivations for the silly, mechanical stage business he is given to do, executes a bit, involving slipping and sliding on a floor made slick with dropped sardines, which is something like a professional skater's triple lutz. He is also adept at dropped-pants gags, which happen to him with clockwork regularity.

But let's not forget Campbell Scott, as Nothing On's increasingly bellicose director ("All my studies in world drama are at your disposal," he growls to yet another unwanted actor's inquiry) --and the center of its most volatile romantic triangle; Kate Jennings Grant as the company busybody, keeping tabs and offering reports on everyone's backstage affairs; Daniel Davis as the elderly, permanently soused, and often missing character man; Rob McClure as the sleep-deprived stage manager; and Tracee Chimo as his weepy, put-upon assistant.

Michael Frayn's farce remains a marvel of dramatic construction, presenting the first act of Nothing On three times: first, at a late-night tech rehearsal bogged down by missed cues and rising tempers; second, a few weeks later, from the vantage of backstage, when the company is roiled by sexual jealousy and deception; and, third, during a final performance that is nothing short of a rolling calamity, climaxing in a heap of baffled actors and ruined scenery. To work, any production of Noises Off requires the most exacting direction, especially in the largely silent second act, which includes some perilous byplay with a hatchet and a cactus, among other props. (Really, a person could get killed doing Noises Off.) Happily, the director, Jeremy Herrin, has attended to every tiny gear embedded in Frayn's comic mechanism, allowing it to function with Swiss precision.

Every set for Noises Off that I've ever seen looks pretty much the same -- a half-timbered country house with a gallery level and plenty of doors, but Derek McLane's design has its own sly touches, including the shag rug on the staircase, the Margaret Keane-style paintings on the stage right wall, and some riotously mismatched fabric patterns. Michael Krass' costumes are an amusing reminder of why the 1970s were such a terrible decade for fashion; he deploys colors and fabrics not found in nature with satirical glee. Jane Cox's lighting has its best moments in Act II, with a deftly modeled backstage-in-performance look. Christopher Cronin's sound design includes Nothing On's reinforcement for Todd Almond's boppy incidental music -- it immediately reminded me of the theme music from the British sitcom, Are You Being Served? -- as well as some impressive offstage crashes.

The original Broadway production of Noises Off, starring the late, great Dorothy Loudon, remains one of my most treasured theatrical memories, but the current version is going to make a lot of people happy, for very good reason. It's the kind of show that, days later, maybe in a low moment, you think of again -- and find yourself chuckling helplessly. -- David Barbour


(15 January 2016)

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