Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 14, 2016
Noises Off by Michael Frayn. Directed by Jeremy Herrin. Set design by Derek McLane. Costume design by Michael Krass. Lighting design by Jane Cox. Sound design by Christopher Cronin. Original music by Todd Almond. Hair and wig design by Paul Huntley. Comedy Stunt Coordinator Lorenzo Pisoni. Dialect Consultant Elizabeth Smith. Cast: Andrea Martin, Campbell Scott, Tracee Chimo, Daniel Davis, David Furr, Kate Jennings Grant, Megan Hilty, Rob McClure, Jeremy Shamos.
Forgive me, but that's an easy mistake to make. With the new Roundabout revival of Michael Frayn's Noises Off at the American Airlines, director Jeremy Herrin and his near-consummate cast have achieved a feat I'd previously deemed impossible: They've unlocked more complexities in Nothing On, the thoroughly absurd (if not outright incomprehensible) play-within-a-play that a ragtag British troupe is performing on an ill-fated provincial tour, than I was aware existed. Frayn may have devised the ultra-wacky sub-scriptin which several plates of sardines, for no reason any human language is capable of articulating, play central roles--as little more than a delivery mechanism for one of the most raucous comedies in theatrical history, but this time around, it's almost its own character.
Not for its contents, mind you. (I defy anyone to explain why an Arab sheikh is in any way involved in a sex romp set in a stuffy English country home.) But because the intimate, almost sexual, give-and-take between it and not only the actors playing it (that is, in Frayn's universe) but the actors playing them (those in our universe) forces you to see Noises Off in a different, darker, and even sadder way than is usually the case--but, thankfully, one that retains most of the jubilant mirth for which it's justly acclaimed. This time around, Nothing On means something powerful to each and every person putting it on, and those stakes, which start out stratospheric and only shoot upward as the evening unfolds, obliterate any hint of a gap between pointless comedy and high tragedy.
For the "star" Dotty, for example, it's a comeback--or maybe a last hurrah--after a lengthy career in television, a chance to prove that she still has what it takes to make sense of the nonsensical. For matinee idol male star Garry, it's another job to be muddled through and paid for. Leading lady Belinda sees it as a calling in which nothing must be taken for granted and every audience member must be given their full money's worth. Her regular scene partner, Frederick Fellowes, is a hardcore method type, for whom every line, every step, and every exit is a riddle to be unraveled. Young sexpot Brooke Ashton is trying to break into higher-profile featured work after cutting her teeth as extras. Aging character actor Selsdon Mowbray, meanwhile, needs a job to feel fulfilled (and an extra source for his cherished liquor doesn't hurt). Their director, Lloyd, is trying to apply Richard III thinking to a piece that obviously can't support it, while juggling flings with Brooke and his eternally on-edge assistant stage manager, Poppy Norton-Taylor. The man-of-all-trades SM, Tim Allgood, is tasked with keeping everything running smoothly, no matter how many people or departments he must spell.
What's unmistakable from the outset is that for each and every one of the "real-world" actors (ours, in other words), these people are at once down and out and playing for keeps. So natural and unaffected is Lloyd's alternate frustration and rage in Campbell Scott's portrayal that you're plunged right into the center of a psyche of a dedicated artist desperate to escape the humble circumstances he abhors. Martin draws bewitching boundaries between Dotty and her, uh, dotty character, Mrs. Clackett, that drive home at once the powers this comedienne once possessed but that have apparently faded with age. David Furr's Garry needs acting to correct a deep defect of some sort (probably his inability to string together coherent sentences), just as Kate Jennings Grant's Belinda uses it to channel her innate maternal leanings and knack for creative problem solving and Frederick, at least as carved by a wonderfully sad Jeremy Shamos, needs to shed a vivifying light on an inner darkness we can't contemplate.
True, Daniel Davis (as Selsdon), Tracee Chimo (Poppy), and Rob McClure (Tim) give more traditional renderings that find less new in the archetypes they play, but they do so with no shortage of skill. Davis's ebullient nature soothes the wounds Selsdon inflicts as a performer who can no longer get anything (particularly his lines) right, Chimo shrinks beautifully into a woman who's facing undue pressure but can take it, and McClure is just right as a man in a similar situation who can't. (When he cracks completely late in the show, he does it with a full-body tremble so total, you may wonder whether he's standing atop a personal earthquake creation machine. Only Megan Hilty doesn't quite hit her mark, trying too hard and landing too soft as a resourceless actress hired for no other tangible reason than because she looks good in the skimpy underwear she's forever thrust into. (The costumes, right smack across the board, are by Michael Krass.)
With such thoughtful, detailed work from the actors, everything matters more on this one-way bus-and-truck to hell (or, perhaps worse, Stockton-on-Tees). So in the first act, the ramshackle final rehearsal of the play, becomes a chance for redemption despite the looming specter of hopelessness. Dotty can still learn (or be trained in) the proper, byzantine order of sardine, newspaper, and telephone placement, she's just certain of it. The in-depth Stanislovskian analysis Frederick applies to carrying a box could still theoretically lead somewhere. Lloyd, who experiences just enough success along the way and displays a strangely vast arsenal of resources, could maybe just pull this out.
The second act, set backstage during a Wednesday matinee a month later, unveils the truth, revealing a group of people in utter free-fall who are scrambling for parachute ripcords that are destined to malfunction, even while they maintain what's left of appearances. (Their choreography of carrying out and redressing their own grievances, all while trying to keep the audience obliviousness, has been sharpened to a fine edge by "comedy stunt coordinator" Lorenzo Pisoni.) Act III, which takes place on the tour's last stop, is ground zero of the ultimate impact, when even they've stopped believing they can make things right--and, beneath the nine-pointed implosion, there's a quiet but discernible ache of loss. You, like them, can't help wonder what could have been.
It's to Herrin's immense credit that so many of the thousand jokes still hit their targets, when they never seem to be his prevailing goal. (And this version is not as funny as the show is capable of being, though it's more consistent than was the 2001 Broadway revival.) More than with any other Noises Off I've seen (which, admittedly, does not include the storied 1983 Broadway original), Herrin sculpts the show as a living, flailing tribute to the ways we deal with adversity, and the restorative or (more likely) corrosive effect those actions have on our psyches. The endless doors of Derek McLane's wryly cheap-looking set, the unforgiving brightness of Jane Cox's lights, and the cheesy-soupy '60s original music (by Todd Almond) become necessary evils, tormenters no less than "Housemonger's" unplayable script.
Everyone's a victim, in other words. Not an uplifting message? Maybe not. But when it's salved in the pain of excess so grand that laughter is the only release, as it is in this Noises Off, who really cares? Not I. And, probably, neither should you. Pass the sardines, please.