Sunday, February 14, 2016

A First Rate Revival of a First Rate Farce

Review: Noises Off

After seeing Noises Off, you'll never look at a plate of sardines the same way.

When is bad acting the best kind of acting? When it is intentional and pulled off with the kind of deft, reckless comic abandoned used by every single cast member in Roundabout Theatre's stellar revival of Michael Frayn's farcical masterpiece, Noises Off. The belly laughs come early and often in this dizzying comic tour de force, which marks not just the first Broadway show of 2016 but also the first great one.

Heralded since its 1983 premiere as one of the all time great theatrical comedies, Noises Off milks its many laughs out of an exceedingly simple premise. A troupe of actors is desperately trying to mount a production of the fictional sex farce Nothing On, a terrible play being done terribly by the ill-equipped actors. Noises Off is broken up into three acts, each set at a different point in the show's run: Act I details the show's disastrous technical rehearsal, Act II moves the action backstage during a performance midway through the show's run, and Act III comes back in front of the curtain to show just how much the show has fallen apart by the end of its run. All of this is enacted by a wonderfully eccentric cast of characters who are concurrently sorting out multiple backstage romances, none of which seem to be going particularly well.

It must be said that even 30 years later Frayn's writing remains a marvel of economy and subtle exposition. As Noises Off primarily deals with how poorly the play-within-a-play is going, there's little time for fleshing out the actors performing it, and yet Frayn manages to pepper the dialogue with enough organic references to their offstage lives that everyone comes across as a person rather than a caricature. The show's first act is funny enough on its own that you don't realize how much expository groundwork it's laying. The repetition of scenes from Nothing On (necessitated by multiple missed cues during the play's tech rehearsal) allows you to follow what's happening in Acts II and III, where the same portion of the fictional comedy is viewed from backstage and from the audience during completely botched performances, yet you don't even realize that's what Frayn's doing until long after the final curtain has literally fallen. The only real knock against the writing is that the playwright fails to follow up on the bombshell revelation at the end of Act II, but at the same time the fact Frayn leaves certain details offstage details to the imagination is part of the appeal.

Of course no matter how strong a script is, you still need a cast and creative team capable of executing it, and that is where this revival truly shines. As the saying goes, "Dying is easy; comedy is hard," and nowhere is that more apparent than in the carefully plotted madness of Noises Off. The play relies on everything going wrong in such a specific fashion that one misstep would derail the entire enterprise, and yet for it to remain funny you cannot see the work or be aware you're being set up for a punchline. Director Jeremy Herrin nails this aspect, carefully crafting each moment of stage time so you can follow both the plot of the play-within-a-play and the behind the scenes shenanigans with ease. He keeps the pacing tight and the comedy heightened yet real; none of the characters have any idea they're being funny, which makes their hapless misadventures all the more hilarious.

Herrin has also assembled one of the hardest working casts in the industry, a true ensemble where every member is working together towards the larger goal. Part of what makes the sparsity of character development work is this cast's ability to fill in the blanks with their mannerisms, and at any moment you can watch anyone onstage and see a fully committed and often deeply hilarious performance. The specificity of the character choices is astounding, as is the varied and delightful ways they interact with one another. It helps that everyone has impeccable comic timing and a major affinity for physical comedy, from prat falls to slap fights to a tumble down the stairs executed with near balletic grace. The actors' physicality comes to a head during the showstopping backstage pantomime that makes up the majority of Act II, a sequence so packed with comic genius it could be watched half a dozen times and reveal entirely new layers of brilliance each time.

Andrea Martin is excellent as the company's resident (and fading) diva, who slowly but surely comes to realize she's in way over her head. Famed comedienne Martin is essentially playing the straight woman, which anyone who works in comedy will tell you is the hardest role to make work, a change of pace she expertly handles while remaining her unimpeachably hilarious self. Jeremy Shamos is side-splittingly funny as an actor who can't stand the sight of violence and just wants to know his motivation, getting funnier and funnier as his character becomes more and more bedraggled. Kate Jennings Grant is immensely appealing as the company's most competent actor and resident gossip monger, and has perhaps the play's single greatest bit of physical comedy as she *slowly* slinks across the floor midperformance to "unobtrusively" remove an errant plate of sardines from the set. Campbell Scott is delightfully explosive as the cantankerous director trying to corral this hapless troupe of actors, and both Tracee Chimo and Rob McClure provide fine support as the production's stage manager and resident technician/understudy, respectively. David Furr kills as the fading marquee idol seemingly incapable of finishing his sentences, and as the resident drunk Daniel Davis is great fun.

But the true standout of the show (quite the accomplishment in a cast this talented) is Megan Hilty as the blonde bombshell who spends the majority of the play in sexy lingerie. Hilty is one of the best bad actresses you are likely to ever see, and her every second of stage time is a multi-faceted masterclass in comic business. Hilty never upstages her cohorts, but when it's her time to shine she takes the moment and runs with it, like her tear-inducingly awkward crawl down the staircase while searching for her missing contact. Whether she's practicing her meditation, silently mouthing the other actors' lines, or flailing her arms in mock panic, Hilty is a comedic knockout.

Really, the only thing wrong with Noises Off is that it's a limited run production, meaning we only have another month to savor this sublime production. The entire hilarious cast will soon have to clear out of the American Airlines Theatre to make way for a very different type of classic (Roundabout's upcoming revival of Long Day's Journey Into Night), so I beg you to brave the cold and catch this production while you can. It's the perfect antidote to the winter doldrums, and proof positive that comedy can be every bit as artistically rewarding as drama.

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