by: Carol Rocamora
They’re rolling in the aisles at the Roundabout, where Noises Off is having a rollicking revival under Jeremy Herrin’s expert direction.
Michael Frayn’s rousing send-up of the theatre and its rituals offers the double pleasure of a farce-within-a-farce. A regional company is touring the remote English provinces with a second-rate sex comedy called “Nothing On,” set on a typical country estate. Frayn treats us to three acts of their antics – a technical rehearsal, a glimpse of back-stage mayhem, and a return visit after three months.
The cast includes a coterie of theatrical stock types– Dotty the aging diva (Andrea Martin), Gary the vain leading man (David Furr); Brooke the sexy blond (Megan Hilty), Selsdon the soused older actor (Daniel Davis), Freddy the neurotic method actor (Jeremy Shamos), Belinda the leading lady (Kate Jennings Grant), and so on. It’s a perfect set-up for thespian satire. In Act One – the technical rehearsal – everything goes wrong (according to theatre tradition). Lloyd the flamboyant director (Campbell Scott) is tearing his hair out because Dotty can’t deal with a plate of sardines (her most important prop), Selsdon forgets his entrance, Freddy keeps asking “what’s my motivation?,” Tim the stagehand (Rob McClure) collapses from exhaustion, and Poppy the stage manager (Tracy Chimo) stops the action while everyone searches for Brooke’s lost contact lens.
The mayhem crescendos in Act II, where we’re treated to a backstage visit during a performance, after the show has been running a month. By now, Lloyd the director is on his third affair with a cast member, the actors are feuding, and Selsdon has gone missing again. The chain of running gags is hilarious – including mistimed curtain announcements, misplaced props (the infamous plate of sardines), missed cues, nose bleeds, dropped trousers, lost contact lenses, flying whiskey bottles, tied shoelaces, and hilarious comedic bits with bouquets of flowers, a cactus, and an axe.
By Act III, the entire production of “Nothing On” has disintegrated into delirium. Dotty has become “dotty” and is improvising most of her lines; the cast members keep slipping on the sardines; doors lose their handles; banisters collapse; actors tumble down the stairs; and two understudies go on for Selsdon simultaneously.
Herrin (artistic director of Headlong) choreographs the chaos with precision and split-second timing, and the cast is uniformly superb. Frayn doesn’t miss an opportunity to poke fun at every aspect of the theatre – down to the last detail. Where else on Broadway this season can you find a “program within a program”? You’ll be laughing well before the curtain goes up, reading the Playbill for “Nothing On” inserted into the Noises Off Playbill.
Farce is acknowledged as the most exacting of comedic genres. With Noises Off, Frayn offers us a meticulously constructed script as well as a delicious satire on the theatre – one that resonates with wit and affection. The flawless Roundabout production is an utter delight. Lloyd the director sums it up: “If we can just get through the play once tonight, for doors and sardines,” he says, “that’s what it’s about. Doors and sardines. Getting the sardines on, getting the sardines off. That’s farce. That’s the theatre. That’s life.”
Noises Off, by Michael Frayn, directed by Jeremy Herrin, a Roundabout Production at American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, New York, www.roundabouttheatre.org
Photos: Joan Marcus