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In 2016, it’s inarguably a little late to be celebrating the stereotype of the dumb blonde. But the stiff walk and posture that Megan Hilty has created for her clueless character, a stunningly untalented British stage actress cast for her generous curves, are the gift that keeps on giving in Roundabout’s delicious Broadway revival of Noises Off. Whether she’s galumphing around backstage or sashaying through a performance with priceless self-consciousness — delivering every line straight to the audience with a blissful inability to take direction or interact with her fellow cast — Hilty’s Brooke Ashton is a sparkling comic caricature that never gets tired.
She’s well matched in director Jeremy Herrin’s production by a first-rate troupe of New York theater pros, even if this notoriously tricky backstage farce hasn’t quite found its ideal precision-tooled groove. The characters are all distinctly drawn, from the affected theater luvvies to the mousy assistant stage manager. But the performances haven’t yet clicked into the tight lockstep required to make Michael Frayn’s intricate 1982 comedy run at full tilt.
Release date: Mar 13, 2016
Farces in general, and this one in particular, need to barrel forward in an accelerating spiral of pandemonium that allows the audience no time to get distracted by irrelevant questions of believability, or — in the case of Frederick Fellowes (Jeremy Shamos), the neediest of the play’s actors — motivation. But erratic pacing here makes the hysteria feel at times more manufactured than spontaneous. That said, the strength of both the material and the cast keeps it entertaining.
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Cheesy sex comedies with winking titles like Run for Your Wife, Not Now, Darling, or my favorite, Fur Coat and No Knickers were a longtime staple of British popular theater, and Frayn embraces the tradition with a balance of mockery and affection in his fictional construct, Nothing On. That giddy romp is set in a refurbished Tudor country house — designed by Derek McLane with just the right balance of splendor, kitsch and theatrical flimsiness. It involves a randy real estate agent and his bit of fluff, a pair of nervous tax exiles, a dithering housekeeper, a burglar and a fake sheik, with lots of dropped trousers, slamming doors (McLane provides eight of them) and itinerant plates of sardines.
Act One of Noises Off is the final dress rehearsal for Nothing On, as the wildly underprepared company readies for opening night of a 12-week regional tour. No stranger to dealing with theatrical temperaments, director Lloyd Dallas (Campbell Scott) exhibits clenched-teeth patience that bubbles into furious exasperation throughout the process. In Act Two, the same act of the farce-within-the-farce is replayed from backstage, a month into the tour, as various romantic complications drive the company to sabotage and harm one another mid-matinee. Much of this is played out in near-silent slapstick. Act Three shows the same act in a performance at the shaggy end of the tour, when the mayhem reaches its zenith.
Frayn’s theme here is the futility of trying to impose order on a world of chaos, an idea that fits snugly into the self-important microcosm of the theatuh, with its reverent conviction that the show must go on in the face of any and all disasters. His characters are familiar types of that milieu, all of them played with individual aplomb, if not always with the collective assurance of a well-oiled unit. That likely will come as the run continues.
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In addition to Hilty, Shamos and Scott, the cast includes Andrea Martin, marvelous as the aptly named Dotty Otley, a long-running soap star who considers herself a grande dame of the stage but was probably always a scenery-chewing ham. Martin nails the amusingly bad working-class accent of Dotty’s charwoman character in Nothing On. She also gets great comic mileage out of the thespian’s confusion when required to manage more than one prop at a time — primarily sardines, telephone receiver and newspaper. David Furr is another standout as Garry Lejeune, the youngish male lead, as that name would imply, who romances Dotty offstage while pursuing Brooke’s character in her pink scanties in the play.
The owners of the house in Nothing On are back briefly from Spain and nervous about being caught by Inland Revenue. They are played by Shamos, as emotionally fragile Frederick, and Kate Jennings Grant, as Belinda Blair, a seasoned pro who likes to think she can ad lib her way out of any stage mishap. Daniel Davis is Selsdon Mowbray, the half-deaf old lush playing the burglar, who keeps absconding with a bottle of whiskey. The very funny Rob McClure is Tim Allgood, the stage manager and principal understudy, permanently on the brink of nervous exhaustion. And in a somewhat thankless role, Tracee Chimo is harried assistant stage manager Poppy, who has been sleeping with the director — as has buxom Brooke.
While Herrin sometimes fumbles his grip on the play’s romantic crossed wires and festering resentments, he does orchestrate some remarkable physical antics, aided by “comedy stunt coordinator” Lorenzo Pisoni.
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The second act backstage is especially stuffed with uproarious sight gags as the actors get tangled in sexually suggestive positions. During one high point, the enraged Dotty ties Garry’s shoelaces together as he’s about to go on. This causes him to take a serious tumble in a scene that’s all the more riotous because we only catch brief glimpses of him hopping about through the set’s central window.
But there’s still a hint of dead air here and there, which becomes more of an issue as the play progresses. The third act has always been the weakest, and while there are some brilliant set-pieces and terrific physical comedy from Furr and Shamos in particular, the repetition built into the material grows tiring. With anything less than breathless execution, the play’s two-and-a-half hours can start to feel stretched.
Still, as evidenced by the constant laughter, few in the audience appear to be complaining. Despite its wit, structural inventiveness and reputation as one of the all-time great farces, this is a tough play to pull off. Even if they’re not 100 percent there yet, Herrin and his ace cast seem well on their way to mastering it.
Venue: American Airlines Theatre, New York
Cast: Andrea Martin, Campbell Scott, Tracee Chimo, Daniel Davis, David Furr, Kate Jennings Grant, Megan Hilty, Rob McClure, Jeremy Shamos
Director: Jeremy Herrin
Playwright: Michael Frayn
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Michael Krass
Lighting designer: Jane Cox
Sound designer: Christopher Cronin
Music: Todd Almond
Comedy stunt coordinator: Lorenzo Pisoni
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company
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