Return visitors to Michael Frayn’s three-act comedy may find watching its play within a play too much of a bad thing
“Noises Off” is the Michael Frayn play that repeats the first act of a really lame British farce three times. It’s a nifty conceit. The first time we see that play within a play, titled “Nothing On,” it’s during a dreadful late-night dress rehearsal. The second time we see it, Frayn shows us what’s going on backstage a few weeks later during a dreadful performance before a live audience, which is off stage. And the third time, it’s from the front of the house at an even more dreadful performance late in the show’s run. Three times is enough, which makes any revival of “Noises Off” a problem. Who needs to see the first act of “Nothing On” six times — or nine times?
The Roundabout is giving “Noises Off” its second Broadway revival, which opened Thursday at the American Airlines Theatre. Usually this space is reserved for reviewing the production, but I’d like to begin by reviewing the audience at the critics’ preview I attended. It appeared to me that half of the audience was laughing really hard and the other half was smiling really hard. I think the laughers were new to “Noises Off” and the smilers had seen it before.
The first Broadway revival of “Noises Off” opened 15 years after the original in 1985 and right after 9/11 in 2001. So did “Mamma Mia!” A lot was written in the press at the time about New York audiences needing mindless comedies to take our collective minds off the tragedy.
The early casualty of that season was Strindberg’s “Dance of Death” starring Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren. Granted, McKellen and Mirren weren’t quite the movie stars they are today, but it was thought that audiences didn’t want to see a serious drama with the word “death” in its title in autumn 2001.
For anyone who’s seen “Noises Off” before, there’s much to smile at in director Jeremy Herrin’s new revival. Truly inspired is David Furr’s performance as Garry Lejeune, the lead actor in “Nothing On.” Each character in “Noises Off” has a quirk: nerves, incompetence, alcoholism, forgetfulness. Lejeune’s thing is that he stutters. Furr wisely drops the stammering and instead turns Lejeune’s inability to say certain words into a chronic inarticulateness, which is much funnier than a speech impediment. He keeps the shtick fresh in acts two and three with masterful pratfalls, including one breathtaking staircase descent that’s scarier than anything in the current adaptation of Stephen King‘s “Misery.” A hatchet also gets thrown around on stage with frightening aplomb.
It’s also fun to watch Andrea Martin go back and forth effortlessly between her Cockney housekeeper character in “Nothing On” and the grand dame of the British theater that she thinks she is but isn’t off stage.
As the stage manager, Rob McClure has the advantage of barely appearing in the first act. When his quirk is revealed in the third act — he’s not an actor but has to sub at the last minute with book in hand — the jitters that consume him dominate every moment. And as a nose bleeder, Jeremy Shamos somehow manages to make each attack different. Which is not the case with Megan Hilty’s cluelessness, Kate Jennings Grant’s gossip-mongering, or Tracee Chimo’s sobbing.
A greater problem for this production is Campbell Scott, who has neither the style nor the size to play the director of “Nothing On,” who not only screws a few people in the company but also needs to represent our reaction to the general pandemonium on stage. Campbell has neither the style nor the size to carry “Noises Off.”