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New York City Theater

"Noises Off"
American Airlines Theater

Slammed doors, pratfalls, mistaken identities, falling trousers, two-timing lovers and general mayhem have been the staples of farce ever since Aristophanes used reeds, octopus ink and papyrus to jot down his still-funny comedies. He would have split his toga at “Noises Off,” the Michael Frayn concoction being given a mostly hilarious, though strangely heavy-handed revival by Roundabout.

This is the one about an incompetent troupe of British actors touring the provinces in a terrible British sex farce. Act One is a dress rehearsal of the play-within-the-play, a trifling confection called “Nothing On,” in which props don’t work, lines are forgotten and cues are missed. Act Two, taking place a month later, shows us the backstage glitches, temperament and rivalry among the cast. Act Three, the closing performance of the tour, is “Nothing On” gone horribly wrong as performed by teeth-clenching actors.

The play-within-the-play concerns dotty Dotty Otley, the housekeeper who has trouble balancing a telephone, newspaper and plate of sardines. Chaos ensues with the arrival of a philandering real estate agent, his dim-witted, buxom girlfriend, an oleaginous woman, her tax-evasive husband and Selsdon Mowbray, an inebriated burglar. Trying to make sense of this mélange are a romance-sodden stage manager, a nervous jack-of-all-trades and a beset director who’s pursuing the ingénue while being pursued by the stage manager.

In the second act, flowers, liquor and a deadly-looking hatchet are among the items misused by the company whose backstage physical, sexual and emotional shenanigans outshine onstage mischief. One can’t expect the wit of Richard Brinsley Sheridan but helter-skelter energy replaces bon mots.

In comparison with other productions of “Noises Off,” something rather touching emerges, as precisely directed by Jeremy Herrin. When Lloyd  Dallas, the “Nothing On” director, says, “That’s the theater, that’s life,” he’s mocked. But Frayn obviously has affection for his madcap performers’ doing their best to put on a show while maneuvering through personal foibles. Yes, rather like life.

Frayn, author of the far more serious “Copenhagen” and “Benefactors,” as well as the funny “Donkeys’ Years,” works “Noises Off” like clockwork. While writing, he must have used a spreadsheet to keep track of all the intricacies. But a director must be equally flexible. Here, as staged by Herrin with the assist of stunt coordinator Lorenzo Pisoni, some of the more physical comedy comes off best. When one actor slips on oily sardines, falls down the stairs or finds himself locked out of rooms, the ensuing laughs are tempered with concern.

That actor is David Furr who, amidst a bevy of experienced comic performers, stands out as the slick, frustrated philanderer too wrought up to finish sentences. Matching him in brio is Jeremy Shamos as the scofflaw husband. Daniel Davis is positively Falstaffian as Selsdon. The other two males are a delightful Rob McClure as a jittery shlub and Campbell Scott, who is disappointingly laid back as Lloyd.

The women are headed by that genius of comedy, Andrea Martin, as Dotty. Her transition from befuddled character to grande dame actress is one of the pleasures of the season. Megan Hilty is giddy as the brainless, talentless girlfriend who mouths everyone else’s lines. Kate Jennings Grant is haughty as the know-it-all wife, while Tracee Chimo as the harried stage manager looks as if she’ll break out in tears at any moment.

That we do care about these madcap characters is the show’s virtue and, peculiarly, its drawback. Yes, farce has to be serious yet it’s also bubble-headed. Why can’t it be both?

--David A. Rosenberg
 Feb. 9, 2016

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