As intricate and well-engineered as a Rolls-Royce Phaeton, Noises Off is also one of the flat-out funniest comedies of our time, or anybody's time. A bloody valentine to the theater, it borrows the door-slamming construction of the plays of Feydeau and Molière and pumps up the volume (and action) to about 15. We open in Weston-super-Mare at the Grand Theatre as we see part of the final tech run of Nothing On, one of those nitwit British sex farces that plagued theatergoers on both sides of the Pond not many decades ago. (The riotously deadpan Playbill-within-a-Playbill for Nothing On lists the author as one Robin Housemonger, whose oeuvre also includes such works as Briefs Encounter and Socks Before Marriage.) The tatty production is being bankrolled by its star, the popular BBC sitcom actor Dottie Otley (Patti LuPone), and directed by the testy, world-weary Lloyd Dallas (Peter Gallagher). "Think of the first night as a dress rehearsal," he balefully advises the players, who have been denied that luxury. Nerves are fraying...and they will fray further.
In Frayn's ingenious conceit, we view the first act of Nothing On thrice: The night before opening, a month into the run (from backstage), and on closing night. The backstage intrigues and onstage mishaps multiply until the atmosphere is so frenetic and comically charged that a mere moment of silence triggers torrential laughter. In part, that's because Frayn has done impeccable homework and his ear for insipid British sex farce is unerring. Taking in the limp double-entendres and tired conventions of Nothing On, you can practically hear author Housemonger chortling away as he types them.
Yet Frayn has real affection for the genre and the hacks who toil in it, offstage and on. Dottie is temperamental but vulnerable, her fellow actors lovably quirky. Note the rightness of their names, too: Garry Lejeune (Thomas McCarthy) is the earnestly inarticulate juvenile; Brooke Ashton (Katie Finneran) the voluptuous and clueless sexpot; Belinda Blair (Faith Prince) the steely pro with an ear for gossip; Frederick Fellowes (Edward Hibbert) the well-meaning shlub susceptible to nosebleeds and fainting spells; Selsdon Mowbray (Richard Easton) the old ham with unreliable hearing and a taste for the hair of the dog. We also meet the hapless company and stage manager and general understudy Tim Allgood (T.R. Knight) and the put-upon assistant stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor (Robin Weigert). This group constitutes, as they say, a recipe for disaster. And every time something goes wrong for them--meaning constantly--it goes terrifically right for the audience.
For those of us lucky enough to have been there, the 1980s production of Noises Off is a cherished memory, with direction by Michael Blakemore that milked every possible laugh and stellar work from the likes of Dorothy Loudon, Brian Murray, and Paxton Whitehead. It's a tough standard to live up to, and this revival comes up short on a few counts. Frayn has done some tinkering, bridging Acts Two and Three with a nervous curtain speech from poor Tim rather than with an intermission. It's funny stuff, but the three-act, two-intermission structure felt more appropriate, more of an homage to the Nothing On school of playwriting.
More damagingly, Jeremy Sams' direction is frantic in the wrong way, pitched so high and fast that some of the subtler humor is lost. Take the culmination of Act Two, a sublime, nearly silent ballet mechanique wherein each character is trying to sabotage at least one other. Sams rushes through the exposition (and LuPone garbles some crucial lines) so that the motivations aren't always clear, and there's just too much stage action for one pair of eyes to take in fully. The end-of-act punchline, which should generate gale-force laughter, instead elicits only mild amusement. Further, the play-within-the-play sounds like it's been pretaped, which drains away much of the spontaneity; part of the pleasure of the first production came from marveling at the sheer complexity of the goings-on on both sides of the flats. Pretaping feels like cheating.
Patti LuPone has the right lazy-maid-shuffle for her Nothing On persona, Mrs. Clackett, and some of her facial expressions are priceless. But she's also unvaryingly brassy, and there's that diction problem. Her Act Three breakdown, which Dorothy Loudon conveyed in one nutty headlong pitch into a sofa, is accompanied by much tray-banging and prop-throwing; less might have been more here. Peter Gallagher is more successful, affecting a flawless British accent along with all the right notes of frustration and sarcasm. Faith Prince (is this a musical-comedy cast, or what?) is fine playing relatively straight. And Katie Finneran, who stole the Encores! production of Li'l Abner a few seasons back, is ready for stardom. As the bubbleheaded Brooke, Finneran turns a simpleton's unflappability into fine art; no matter what fresh hell has occurred onstage, Brooke falls back on the same bad-actor gestures, and the running gag gets riper every time. Good work from everyone else, too--and a special nod to Edward Hibbert, who not only displays crack timing but also endures some of Frayn's most rib-cracking physical abuse.
One could nitpick a little more at the revival as measured against the original--Robert Jones' set is less elegant, and that excellent actor Richard Easton is a bit too vital to play a tipsy, doddering thespian--but that would be churlish. Noises Off really does seem one of the great stage comedies, likely to endure for centuries. Here, operating at about 80% of its comic potential, it's still damned funny.