In moments of stress, none of our allies has been more loyal than the British, and in this, one of our darkest hours, they have shown the depth of their friendship by sending us a revival of Michael Frayn's "Noises Off."
This might be more accurately labeled an Anglo-American alliance. The cast is American, but they are directed by Jeremy Sams, who mounted a successful production of the hilarious farce in London last year. Frayn is one of the too-little-sung heroes of the contemporary English-speaking theater. He wrote the dazzling "Copenhagen," which won the Tony for best play last year. He has written other plays of distinction ("Benefactors" especially) as well as adaptations of Chekhov - along with novels, including the delicious "Against Entropy."
Here, though, he is probably best-known for "Noises Off," first done on Broadway in 1983. It is a play that declares itself as soon as the curtain rises. A maid (the very entrance of a servant is a sign of its defiantly rearguard mentality) comes onstage to answer a telephone carrying a tray of sardines. We are watching a rehearsal of "Nothing On," the sort of English comedy we tend to dislike. We watch the actors wrestle with the mechanics of which door to enter and which to slam, and the equally grave issue of where to place platters of sardines. "Doors and sardines," the maid announces. "That's what it's all about."
Ostensibly the plot is about how the backstage affairs of the actors, the crew and the director affect onstage behavior, but, like all farce, "Noises Off" is about farce. And farce is about how the simplest action can take on a life of its own, often quite destructive. It's about keeping one's head high as the world falls dizzily apart (which gives farce a special appeal as the world falls not so dizzily apart). The second act takes place backstage on opening night, when the actors' animosities play out behind the scenes. The actors have been touring for months in Act III. We are again on the set rather than behind it, but by now the play is a total shambles and the actors are at each other's throats. Plot, of course, is about as important to farce as it is to ballet. Movement is most important. In Sams' production, the slides across the floor, the pratfalls, the collisions of heads with doors and lintels or, in this case, with a cactus, all have a kind of bumper car brilliance. The cast is super. Peter Gallagher has great dash as the director, scathing as he coaches the actors, hapless as he pursues two women in the company. Patti LuPone, as the actress playing the maid, reeks of attitude from her first entrance, which coats everything she does deliciously. Katie Finneran is especially funny as a starlet who constantly loses her contact lenses, Edward Hibbert is expectedly wonderful as a somewhat benighted actor, and T.R. Knight is enormously appealing as an earnest backstage factotum. Thomas McCarthy brings grace to his giddy pirouettes, Richard Easton is endearing as a drunken bumbler, Robin Weigert has a waiflike charm as the embattled stage manager, and Faith Prince does well as a brazen actress. Robert Jones' set has an appropriately tatty quality, as do his costumes, especially his outfit for LuPone. If laughter is indeed the best medicine, "Noises Off" is worth its weight in Cipro.
Michael Frayn's "Noises Off" is the funniest farce ever written. If it isn't, tell me what is.Never before has "side-splitting" taken on a meaning dangerously close to the non-metaphorically medical.
Unquestionably, this is not a play for anyone with sore ribs. This is an evening for people with bodies fit enough to withstand endless convulsions.
And these convulsions are caused by a veritable celebration of truly awful theater, a backstage explanation of how things got that way, and a magnificent coda of how they just got worse.
The bad has never had it so good!
Frayn - who in a more serious frame of mind gave us "Copenhagen" a couple of seasons back - this time drags us to the scene of an endless midnight dress rehearsal of some terrible English sex-farce, "Nothing On."
As the director of this awful play - which "Noises Off" studies under a microscope the way an entomologist might survey a beetle - Lloyd Dallas (Peter Gallagher) explains to his weary and totally inept cast, "it is all about sardines and doors."
Sardines? Well, yes, because the leading lady and principal backer of "Nothing On," Dotty Otley (Patti LuPone), a former TV star looking for a retirement nest egg, has a role motivated by "a plate of nice sardines."
Doors? Well, since this is a farce, the elaborately tacky English country house setting (a neat satire by designer Robert Jones) is festooned with them, through which the cast members can enter and exit often in various stages of undress.
Because this is a farce about a farce, everything that can go wrong does. Actors forget their lines, fall down stairs, slip on sardines, pull out telephone lines, you can imagine the carnage. Well, maybe you can't, but Frayn can.
Actors, even actors bouncing around touring the less salubrious seaside towns of Britain, have private lives. And in the second act Frayn is at pains to reveal them. Remember all those doors? Every entrance is an exit on the other side. So now Frayn takes us to the belly of the beast, the same farce, a month later on the tour, only this time backstage.
Things are not going well. And that's putting a spin on it.
The director (Gallagher) has broken away from rehearsals of "Richard III" to return for a midweek matinee of "Nothing On" because his girlfriend, the ingenue Brooke Ashton (Katie Finneran) is threatening to quit.
For that matter, his earlier girlfriend, stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor (Robin Weigert) is pregnant.
Also, his leading lady (LuPone) has been having an affair with the much younger Garry Lejeune (Thomas McCarthy). Lejeune, in turn, is accusing her of playing around with Frederick Fellowes (Edward Hibbert), who unfailingly faints at the sight of blood, and whose wife has just left him.
Slow forward two months, and the final performance of "Nothing On." We in the audience can imagine the chaos. The actors are less well-prepared.
Director Jeremy Sams and his devoted ensemble never miss a pratfall, a lunge or a laugh. This is a great night out for a belly laugh - as long as that belly is surrounded by sound ribs.
Breathlessness, vertigo and that scary-sweet exhilaration of being out of control: there are few highs to equal the experience of floating in the upper altitudes of comedy. In the spectacularly funny new revival of ''Noises Off,'' Michael Frayn's peerless backstage farce, there are moments when everyone -- onstage and in the audience -- seems to be riding the same runaway roller coaster.
This can be unsettling. After all, what's being portrayed is a group of perfectly likable people falling apart. And then on every side of you are theatergoers barking, howling, hooting -- well, choose your zoological verb; it'll fit. If someone had thought to replace screams with laughter in the days of primal therapy, this is probably what it would have sounded like.
The reassuring fact remains, however, that someone is in control of the festival of delirium that opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theater. A number of someones, actually, supremely in control. The list starts with Mr. Frayn, who wrote the most dexterously realized comedy ever about putting on a comedy, and the director, Jeremy Sams, who elucidates the method (and the Method) in an entire cast of characters' voyage into madness.
Then there is what will surely turn out to be the most fine-tuned ensemble of the season, featuring some very familiar presences (Peter Gallagher, Patti LuPone, Faith Prince) and others you'll now have trouble forgetting, especially a comic bombshell named Katie Finneran.
As a team, they go to pieces with balletic exactitude, acting out the professional and personal disintegration of a scrappy English troupe touring in a mediocre sex farce. For theatergoers in New York, the brave and beleaguered world capital of control freaks on the verge, this disciplined rendering of chaos starts to feel like an exorcism. There was a reason, you realize, that the meticulously frantic ''I Love Lucy'' was so beloved in the atomic age.
Catharsis comes in surprising packages these days. Who would ever have thought three months ago that the most emotionally stirring shows in Manhattan would be a sincerely kitschy musical set to the songs of Abba (''Mamma Mia!''), an earnest story-theater rendering of Greco-Roman myths (''Metamorphoses'') and a dizzy, well-known romp like ''Noises Off''?
Certainly it seemed premature to resuscitate Mr. Frayn's comedy, a much-lauded hit on Broadway in 1983. Strange times breed strange diversions, however. And what ''Mamma Mia!,'' ''Metamorphoses'' and ''Noises Off'' have in common is that they bypass that celebrated skeptical New York mind to go for the gut.
''Mamma Mia!'' encourages its audience members to sing along mindlessly like kids in a ''Romper Room'' segment. ''Metamorphoses'' portrays primal legends of love and loss that reduce you to equally primal tears. As for ''Noises Off'' -- well, it allows you to laugh, loudly and wantonly, at a world in which everything seems out of joint.
Not that the revival, previously seen with a different cast at the Royal National Theater in London, is mindless. The play's author, please remember, is Mr. Frayn, who brings an acute scholarly intelligence to anything he touches. And ''Noises Off'' is shaped with an intricacy and attention to detail that rivals that of the atom-splitting physicists in Mr. Frayn's Tony-winning ''Copenhagen.''
To read the script of ''Noises Off'' is to scratch your head and wonder how anyone could possibly stage the darn thing. It is made up of three acts, in each of which the first act of a play called ''Nothing On'' is performed in different phases of a provincial tour.
Financed by its faded star, Dotty Otley (Ms. LuPone), and directed by a self-dramatizing rake named Lloyd Dallas (Mr. Gallagher), the show is the scathing sum of every smirky, double-entendre-clogged British sex farce there ever was. (Think ''Run for Your Wife!'') But it does have lots of speedy exits, entrances, collisions and a command of silly props (like plates of sardines) that demand hair-trigger timing.
Now imagine the same show performed by a company of actors of less than top-drawer talent who are riddled with emotional kinks, rivalries and gnarled romantic entanglements. The tour starts off shaky, deteriorates into palsy and winds up, in its final act, in delirium tremens.
Mr. Frayn limns all this with incredible care, quickly and thoroughly establishing a network of personalities, relationships and potential conflicts that informs everything that follows. He's no blunt cartoonist either. The cast and crew of ''Nothing On'' may be second-raters, but Mr. Frayn draws them with warm specificity. (By the way, make sure you read the priceless program-within-the-Playbill for ''Nothing On,'' which details the credits of all involved.)
Unlike the roles they play, Dotty and company aren't devices in some Rube Goldberg toy. Mr. Sams and his cast members respect the characters' human roundedness and, whatever their failings, their genuine love for the theater. Almost from the moment they set foot onstage, you feel you know them.
Let's start with the dashing Mr. Gallagher, a stage and screen actor who has always seemed a shade too complex to become a major movie star. Here, dressed in excruciatingly cool head-to-toe black, his Lloyd is a natural preener who loves to play God and finds the self-aggrandizing pose in every moment of catastrophe.
You probably met Lloyd Dallas if you ever hung out in a college theater department. He's the one who sleeps with and belittles his students, because that's what artists are supposed to do.
And you've certainly met someone like Belinda Blair, the show's cozy, middle-aged second lead and a sunny, self-defined peacemaker who smugly spills everyone's secrets. As charted with unlikely subtlety by Ms. Prince, it's Belinda's descent into nastiness that most clearly gauges the toll exacted by touring.
Subtle is not the word for Ms. LuPone's performance in a role memorably created on Broadway by Dorothy Loudon. Ms. LuPone's Dotty, a semigrand lady of television sitcoms who plays the Cockney housekeeper in ''Nothing On,'' is built of extreme mannerisms that remind you that Ms. LuPone created the role of Norma Desmond in the musical ''Sunset Boulevard.'' She has some awfully funny moments, though, and her wobbly duck walk is enough to make you forgive all excesses.
Everyone else is pretty much beyond fault: Thomas McCarthy as Dotty's younger, hail-fellow-well-met love interest; Robin Weigert as the down-to-earth but vulnerable stage manager; Edward Hibbert as a deeply sensitive soul searching for psychological motive in his mechanical character; and T. R. Knight as Tim, the perpetually fatigued young company manager.
The cast also features Richard Easton as a gossipy old pro who is both alcoholic and hard of hearing. It's a part that could easily slide into nasty caricature. But Mr. Easton, who won a Tony last season for his superlative work in ''The Invention of Love,'' here invests his character with a glazed, gentle quality that somehow brings John Gielgud to mind.
The show's blazing standout, however, is a relative newcomer, Katie Finneran, who turns the role of Brooke Ashton, the director's bimbo girlfriend, into a triumph of eccentric slapstick. Business that should seem geriatric -- like Brooke's repeatedly losing her contact lenses and bumping into walls -- feels fresh every time it happens.
Ms. Finneran, playing Brooke playing a usually undressed character named Vicki, also acts badly beautifully. Even her cleavage becomes comic. In an evening filled with peaks, the highest belongs to Brooke in the third act, when she sticks to every painfully studied gesture and line reading while her derailed fellow performers are improvising madly.
Mr. Frayn has made a few revisions, including an introductory speech from Tim to bridge the second and third acts; Mr. Knight delivers it with enchanting haplessness. Admittedly, not everything works equally well. The second act, which takes place behind the scenery, is mostly pure silent-movie-style physical comedy, and while it's often hilarious, it feels more fitful than the rest of the evening. And the show's concluding moments have a hazy sense of letdown when what you want is a thunderclap.
Nonetheless, Mr. Sams, who directed the recent hit production of ''Noises Off'' at the Royal National, infuses most of the evening with a poetic Chaplinesque rhythm that turns chaos into demented, delicious order. And Robert Jones's sets and costumes are spot-on in matters both large (the clichéd country manor set for ''Nothing On'') and small (Tim's brown suede shoes worn with black tie).
Early in the evening, Ms. Finneran (playing Brooke playing Vicki) looks around the set of ''Nothing On'' and coos lasciviously, ''All these doors!'' A multitude of doors has always been an essential element of classic farce, a promise and a threat of the confusions ahead.
''Noises Off'' multiplies the Feydeauvian use of doors for complications and disorder. Every time one swings open, or fails to, this production ups the catastrophe quotient. And for whatever reasons, this artificial depiction of everything going wrong -- of disaster lurking behind and leaping from every doorway -- provides you with a tremendous feeling of release. This may not be what Aristotle meant by catharsis. But whatever you call it, it feels good.
Worry not about that seismic sound coming from the Brooks Atkinson Theater: It's nothing ominous, just the roar of a thousand people laughing themselves into fits at the sublime silliness of Michael Frayn's "Noises Off." In a time of free-floating anxiety in the city, there's something supremely comforting about the organized chaos of farce, and audiences are greeting Frayn's comedy, back on Broadway after less than 20 years, like a cherished old friend whose company is distinctly therapeutic. Business should be brisk.
Jeremy Sams' staging is billed as the Royal National Theater production, but it's been entirely recast with a crop of mostly American performers. Many come with impressive stage resumes, and if their styles and personas don't always mesh perfectly with the characters -- witness the peculiarly spoken Dotty Otley of Patti LuPone -- they possess the kind of blazing theatrical presences that can smooth over stylistic deficits and even turn them to advantage. (LuPone's bizarre and intermittently incomprehensible intonations, probably not replicated anywhere in the British Isles, become a kind of running gag in themselves.)
The staging has its sloppy moments (if you're going to fling a bottle of whiskey about, it's best to catch it before it bounces), and at times the cast appears to be having such fun that they lose sight of the poker-faced precision that actually enhances the allure of even the broadest farce. But the raucous, no-holds-barred spirit is integral to the production's ingratiating appeal, and it fits the mood of audiences desperate to let bottled-up tensions explode.
It's a delight, too, to be reacquainted with the sheer brilliance of Frayn's conception (fascinating, too, is the realization that the man who created this inspired lunacy also penned that thoughtful inquiry into the morality of nuclear fission, "Copenhagen"). For those whose memories are fuzzy, Frayn's three-act play (performed with just one intermission here) is like a three-layer cake, with each layer frosted with more laughs than the one on top.
In act one we watch the clumsy final dress rehearsal in a dreary British 'burb of the door-slamming sex farce "Nothing On." In act two, we see the Wednesday matinee a month later from behind the set, where the fallout from unraveling romances causes more hilarity offstage than on. Act three takes us out front again for the final performance almost two months after that, by which time the emotional chaos has rendered the play entirely surreal. Cues are missed; props are wielded as weapons; lines are mangled willfully.
This ingenious structure allows Frayn to simultaneously celebrate the mechanics of farce, send them up and dissect them with the precision of a heart surgeon. But precisely calibrated as this gag machine is, it would collapse into a pile of mismatched nuts and bolts without neatly etched turns, and it gets plenty here.
LuPone genially mocks her own diva tendencies as Dotty, the play's ostensible star and chief investor, whose affair with the handsome Garry Lejeune (Thomas McCarthy, deftly holding his own in his Broadway debut) is one cause of the simmering anarchy backstage. Another is the wandering eye of chronically exasperated director Lloyd Dallas, charmingly personified by Peter Gallagher, whose blue eyes have the requisite doggy look of bleary fatigue.
The dual objects of his affection are stagehand Poppy, played with wan, put-upon wariness by Robin Weigert, and blowzy ingenue Brooke Ashton, delightfully reinvented by Katie Finneran in the production's standout performance. Memories of the inimitable Deborah Rush in this role are indelible, but Finneran gamely makes it her own, flouncing recklessly up and down the stairs like an Amazonian rag doll, her breathy wisp of a voice always suggesting a question mark as her perplexed pout and crossed eyes perform strange calisthenics of their own. It's an inspired turn.
Also inspired is the subtlety with which Richard Easton approaches his role as the doddering Selsdon Mowbray, whose entrance onstage as a cat burglar is always in question when a bottle of liquor is on the premises. Some of the cast happily let themselves be carried by the audience's affection into exaggeration, but Easton delicately draws the line at mugging. English actors Easton and Edward Hibbert, a thorough delight as the twitty, inadvertently trouble-making Frederick Fellowes, come most easily to the genre, and it shows in the understated confidence of their performances.
Also getting big laughs from nicely subtle work is T.R. Knight, who plays dazed stagehand Tim with the funny, wondering blankness of a newborn kitten. And that leaves us with Faith Prince, always a welcome presence with her wry style and amusing nasal chirp, underemployed though they are in her relatively flavorless role as Belinda Blair.
Sets and costumes by Robert Jones are apt and, most important, functional and dysfunctional as need be, and like Tim Mitchell's lighting they're up to the task of firmly marking the onstage/backstage divide. Sams' direction, while indulgent at times, keeps the doors slamming and the laughs coming on time, indicating that he, like Frayn, is a man of diverse talents with a capacity for completing comical and mathematical equations.
The last line in his bio, which is funnier than anything in the fake program for "Nothing On" inserted into the Playbill, certainly suggests an eclectic talent: Sams' future projects include "the book for 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' and a new translation of Wagner's 'Ring' cycle." One only hopes he doesn't get them confused.
Then again, that's an intriguing idea for a farce. Mr. Frayn?