Can there be too much of a good thing? Definitely not in Noises Off, Michael Frayn's door-slamming comedy wrapped in a door-slamming comedy, now enjoying a Broadway revival at the American Airlines Theatre under the auspices of Roundabout Theatre Company. Just when you think it cannot possibly top itself in lunacy, it miraculously does — and that's exactly how it should be. It is impossible not to laugh when watching this play, the funniest backstage comedy ever written.
The first act takes place during an all-night rehearsal for Nothing On, a mediocre English sex farce about to make its world premiere in Weston-super-Mare. The show's star, Dotty Otley (Andrea Martin), has money in the production and is counting on a successful tour to help fund her retirement. As the evening trudges on, that seems less and less likely. Actress Brooke (Megan Hilty) keeps losing her contact lens; stage manager Tim (Rob McClure) is falling down with exhaustion; actor Garry (David Furr) is at a loss for words; boozy elder actor Selsdon (Daniel Davis) has gone missing. Director Lloyd Dallas (an acidic Campbell Scott) grows increasingly impatient with Frederick (Jeremy Shamos) and his questions about the flimsy construction of the script. Lloyd takes his anger out on mousy assistant stage manager Poppy (a sympathetic and vulnerable Tracee Chimo). Meanwhile, the habitually chipper Belinda (Kate Jennings Grant) keeps up morale as she dispenses cast gossip, specifically who is sleeping with whom. As the hours tick by, Lloyd offers some invaluable advice: "Just think of the first night as a dress rehearsal."
This messy technical rehearsal is very amusing (especially for anyone who has ever been involved in such a theatrical train wreck), but a little slow in the first act — much more than I remembered from a show that has brought me tears of laughter on multiple occasions. Noises Off has become a staple of amateur and professional theaters alike (it was last revived on Broadway in 2001, starring Patti LuPone as Dotty and Katie Finneran in a Tony-winning turn as Brooke). When done well, it is a masterpiece of stage comedy. So it feels a bit disappointing when the first third only elicits a few mild chuckles. Fear not: It's all part of the plan. Director Jeremy Herrin (Wolf Hall) painstakingly sets up the dominoes in a muted first act, only to knock them down in spectacular fashion in the second, and dynamite them in the third. He lets the play sneak up on you until you are helplessly enthralled. It's a lesson in the virtues of comedic restraint.
The second act turns the set around and lets us look at the performance from behind. Specifically, we get to see the backstage farce, which is significantly funnier than the one presented in Nothing On — not just laugh-out-loud funny, but gasping-for-air hysterical. Jilted lovers collide in a hailstorm of flowers and ego as the show valiantly goes on beyond the plaster line. The third act presents what remains of Nothing On as it staggers toward the finish line of this bus and truck from hell.
Herrin directs a very traditional production: The set is just as it has always been (a forest of doors) and Frayn has not made any significant script revisions. And really, why reinvent the wheel? Noises Off is already a work of farcical genius. It is impressive enough that Herrin and the company can execute its complicated stage business with balletic precision (Lorenzo Pisoni deserves a standing ovation for his brilliant slapstick choreography).
The one notable contribution of this second Broadway revival comes in the design: 34 years after its world premiere, Noises Off has become a period piece, complete with exaggerated costumes and an incredibly loud color scheme. Set designer Derek McLane places a hideous curtain in front of the third act. Sporting orange, yellow, and brown stripes, it looks like it was stolen off the set of The Mike Douglas Show in 1979. As costumed by Michael Krass, the folks behind the curtain could be Mike's special guests: Frederick wears his open collar over the lapels of his eye-scouring mustard blazer, tying it all together with white pants and shoes. It's hilariously revolting.
Some truly excellent performances emerge out of this nauseating backdrop. Martin is a hoot as Dotty, tragically slinking across the stage in a kimono following a dust-up with her boyfriend. Vocally, Furr seems to be channeling James Mason, delivering everything with mellifluous lethargy. It's an unexpected choice for such a high-energy farce, but has the welcome result of making this cool cucumber seem all the more ridiculous once he starts hopping across the stage. Hilty ingeniously plays Brooke as the type of performer who only seems to be able to act during her own lines, between which she quietly mouths the lines of her costars. As Tim, the adorable McClure literally shakes with terror every time he's pushed onstage, causing us to shake with laughter.
Cheeky design, a highly talented ensemble, and perfect comic timing: This Noises Off has the right combination of elements to make the perpetually funny comedy soar. If you're looking for a night of gut-busting hilarity, you can't do any better than this one.