Noises Off By Michael Frayn. Sets and Costumes by Robert Jones. Lighting by Tim Mitchell. Sound
by Fergus O'Hare (for Aura). Directed by Jeremy Sams. Cast: Patti LuPone, Peter Gallagher, Richard Easton, Katie Finneran, T.R. Knight, Thomas McCarthy, Robin Weigert, Faith Prince, and Edward
Other peoples' misfortunes have proven comic gold for the entertainment industry for a long time. What exactly is it about seeing someone onstage or on television going through the most terrible hardships that makes us want to come back for more? Whatever it is, that quality is present in abundance in Noises Off.
The new production that opened last night on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre is a transfer of the recent Royal National Theatre production directed by Jeremy Sams. While this production contains all the essential elements that make Noises Off one of the funniest plays of the last thirty years or so, it also amply demonstrates the problems that can arise from attempting it.
Noises Off presents the story of a hapless English acting troupe who are touring a production of a farce called Nothing On. Nothing On must be about something, but it's hard to figure out what exactly. Expect lots of doors slamming, sexual dalliances, confusions, and, of course, plates of sardines. The encompassing story about the acting troupe is every bit as convoluted. The questions about the actors - who's in love with whom, who doesn't know what, why is everyone angry - are every bit as deep (and irrelevant) as the questions about the characters they portray.
The play is divided into three acts. In the first, director Lloyd Dallas (Peter Gallagher) is drilling his cast at their final dress rehearsal, only hours away from the opening. His cast includes the dotty Dotty (Patti LuPone) who can barely remember her lines, the elderly and nearly deaf Selsdon (Richard Easton), the blonde bombshell Brooke (Katie Finneran), the inarticulate Garry (Thomas McCarthy), the overly nervous Frederick (Edward Hibbert), and the ever-game Belinda (Faith Prince). As the act progresses, it becomes clear that their problems go beyond surface squabblings, and that just about anything could result from their difficulties. As such, it is mostly workmanlike, but succeeds at establishing the characters and situations that will pay off later.
Sams has provided some strong physical direction, utilizing the many doors, curtains, and levels of Robert Jones's set to their fullest extent (Jones has also designed an array of appropriately gaudy costumes). Sams makes sure his actors hit just about every point, each one choreographed with significant precision.
Yet, during the second act, when the Nothing On actors are trying their hardest to both keep the play going and kill each other, something is amiss. Everything seems a little too forced, and there is never the sense that the world of Nothing On is so tense it could explode at any moment. Rather, there is an overwhelming sense of very controlled pandemonium. You know who the characters are and you know why they're fighting, but some element of truth and believability is missing, and that prevents achieving wall-to-wall hilarity. You'll probably have a wide grin planted on your face the whole time, but huge laughs may be fewer and farther between.
The laughs are far more common in the raucous third act, when the tour has fallen apart, and everyone is just trying to make it through the final performance. Something about the subject matter seems to energize the Noises Off cast. When sardines go flying, sets and props start betraying the Nothing On actors, and everyone is plowing through the best way they know how, they all seem strangely at home. There are times when the line between the reality of Noises Off and the stage reality of Nothing On becomes so blurred, it is visibly difficult for some of the characters to know where one ends and the other begins, and it is in those moments that this production of Noises Off comes off the best.
Finneran and Easton are the particular standouts. Easton has few lines, but makes the most of all of them, while Finneran's character's vacant expressions and exclamations and strong determination make Brooke (and Brooke's character, Vicki) extraordinarily likable. McCarthy has a few funny moments, as do Robin Weigert and T.R. Knight as the mostly innocent backstage crew members who get drawn into the onstage travails. Faith Prince does decently in her mostly thankless role, though Edward Hibbert makes less of an impression.
Gallagher and LuPone are the two weakest links of the cast. Gallagher, who spends a great deal of time offstage, exercises more authority when speaking over the microphone than when actually taking part in the action, and little of what he does seems natural most of the time. Generally, LuPone does better, especially in Dotty's dottier moments. During the second act, though, LuPone almost always seems stiff and labored, and seldom presents any significant reason for believing her Dotty would be the object of affection for one of the Nothing On actors, let alone two.
Missteps aside, if you need to laugh, Noises Off is for you. There is something here to entertain just about everyone, and if the show as a whole isn't always comic perfection, it's always very amusing and eager to please. If you need to drown your troubles, taking a plunge at the Brooks Atkinson might be a good way to start.