While Frayn’s roles are juicy parodies of very specific kinds of people, for the laughs to roll in one on top of the other, the play must be performed fast enough that we don’t have time to think about it or what we are laughing at. Consequently, though the production is entertaining for its comic portrayals, it fails to trigger all the laughs inherent in the script or become the laugh riot it is intended to be. Possibly, as the actors have more performances under their belts, the play may pick up speed and more laughs along the way.
Frayn’s play is a perfect example of precision-plot construction but this nearly perfect play goes beyond the mechanics of the usual farce. Act I takes place on stage at the Grand Theatre, Weston–super-Mare, during the only and final dress/tech rehearsal for a British regional tour of a third-rate British sex comedy called Nothing On with a second-rate cast made up partly of has-beens and hopefuls and some of the famously untalented. Act II takes place a month later at a matinee in another backwater, the Theater Royal, Ashton-under-Lyne.
However, this time we are backstage before and during the performance of the same first act of Nothing On. Now the cast is involved in romantic entanglements, jealousies and various vendettas which threaten to overwhelm the show and their relationships. The final act takes place back on stage (again) at the Municipal Theatre, Stockton-on-Tees, at the end of the tour, with the cast muddling their way through the performance and skipping lines and scenes so that much ad-libbing and new stage business must be invented to get them through the performance.
Coming out of the audience is Scott as director Lloyd Dallas, exasperated beyond belief by the failings of his cast to remember their lines, their business, their cues and their blocking, as well as props and scenery that malfunction. His major problem is his star, beloved television actress, Dotty Otley (Martin), returning to the stage past her prime, as a housekeeper in a modernized but empty Tudor villa, only to be unable to remember her blocking with telephone receiver, newspaper and a ubiquitous plate of sardines continually tripping her up. She never seems to be able to pick them up in the right order.
But she is the least of his problems: over-the-hill lush Selsdon Mowbray (Donald Davis) playing a high-class burglar is continually going missing in search of a drink, while understudy, stagehand Tim Allgood (Ron McClure of Chaplin fame) is too sleep deprived from putting up the set to deal with going on for him. His male star Garry Lejeune (David Furr), playing a real estate agent on his lunch hour, can’t remember his lines or finish a sentence. He is also having a career boosting affair with Dotty who is a good deal his senior. He is playing opposite ‘blonde bimbo’ (yes, it’s that kind of old-fashioned play) Brooke Ashton (Megan Hilty, late of Smash) as his little bit on the side who can be heard counting her steps and posing at all times even when dressed in nothing but a revealing pink teddy and bustier.
Playing the owners of the villa, tax exiles, who have snuck into the country for a dirty weekend in their supposedly empty house are Jeremy Shamos as actor Frederick Fellowes who is continually stopping the rehearsal to find out his motivation or having a nose bleed any time physical violence comes into play and Kate Jennings as Belinda Blair, efficient and great at improvising when need be, but also adept at passing along gossip which causes the most trouble. Lloyd’s stage manager is mousey Poppy Norton-Taylor (Tracee Chimo) who bursts into tears at the drop of a hat – or when anything goes wrong.
Not only do those oily, greasy sardines cause all kinds of trouble off stage and on, but by the second act a month later, we discover that Frederick’s wife has left him and Dotty has gone out with him the night before to give him consolation, so now Garry is on the warpath against him. Lloyd sneaks back into the theater, playing hooky from his rehearsals for Richard III to make things all right with Brooke who he has been sleeping with – but he has also been sleeping with Poppy who now has some unfortunate news to tell him. With Selsdon getting his hands on the bottle that Lloyd intended for Tim to deliver to Brooke and his flowers going to Poppy, backstage is rife with intrigue and major resentments which overwhelm the performance at hand.
The stage business coordinated by actor and circus clown Lorenzo Pisoni is clockwork in its precision but the play’s timing lacks the breakneck speed of an Acela for this farce within a farce. The fine cast, however, attuned to their specific and generically comic roles, all have their funny bits and memorable moments finding themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Spot-on is Derek McLane’s two level set design for the Tudor villa with its break away window and doors with handles that come off at the most inconvenient moments. The costumes by Michael Krass instantly define the actors as to the kind of people they are playing. Christopher Cronin’s sound design adds to the fun as we hear noises off stage that we are supposed to hear, as well as those we aren’t.
Performed the three acts in two increases the repetition inherent in seeing Act I of Nothing On three times, so that it might have been better to have had that second intermission. Nevertheless, using four actors who are returning Roundabout Theatre Company alums as well as five actors not necessarily known for farce but who put their heart into their satiric performances, this Noises Off is best as a character-driven backstage play with memorable stage business. Along the way, you can also admire Michael Frayn’s ingenuity in the writing of this nearly perfect comedy, a parody of a certain kind of British sex farce.
Noises Off (through March 13, 2016)
Roundabout Theatre Company
American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-719-1300 or visit http://www.roundabouttheatre.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission