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Noises Off

B

If noises off hadn’t been transferred from London’s West End, you’d think it was government-ordered to cheer up New Yorkers. So inexhaustible is this backstage romp’s clowning that if the audience isn’t giggling, you almost expect the cast to jump into the stalls for a group tickle.

Michael Frayn’s antic comedy, first a hit on Broadway in 1983, depicts three performances of the sex-farce-within-a-farce Nothing On: the dress rehearsal, when the cast, only vaguely acquainted with their lines, tortures their put-upon director (Peter Gallagher); a matinee one month later, when backstage affairs, petty rivalries, and bloody noses take precedence over hitting marks; and the last show of the tour, when the script is just a faint memory.

This mission of mirth’s special-ops team is its veteran cast of Tony winners: Patti LuPone as the Norma Desmond-esque star who has sunk her own money into the play (and her romantic teeth into the young, vacuous lead); Faith Prince as her relentlessly upbeat costar; and Richard Easton as an alcoholic has-been. Katie Finneran should get a Tony as the buxom bimbo prone to sextuple takes and losing her contacts in crucial scenes. She’s a delight, bookending Broadway’s triumphant Year of the Ditz begun by The Producers’ Cady Huffman.

The play’s broad comedy and brilliantly structured script take flight under Jeremy Sams’ precise direction. While the bickering players dash about backstage, chasing each other with axes and running into doors, each line and pratfall gets an added roar because of its impact on Nothing On. The action becomes so frantic it’s difficult to keep up with: Concentrate on Gallagher, stage right, getting a cactus in the caboose, and you’ll miss Prince, stage left, tossing a liquor bottle that sets up a later gag. But the chaotic leaping-about always coalesces, like a ballet staged by Buster Keaton.

At times the onslaught of slapstick — characters crashing into walls, the ceaseless slamming of doors — becomes wearying. At their most frenzied, the actors throw themselves about so exaggeratedly you feel like you’re watching a Three’s Company hits montage. (And to debunk one comedy myth for Noises Off and innumerable other productions that employ this hoary bit: In scenes where someone is kneeling to fix a man’s pants and a third person walks in, it never looks like there’s fellatio afoot.)

However, these fits of overkill are often followed by a hilarious crescendo that, as all big and cathartic laughs do, allows you to revel in one glorious moment. In other words: Mission accomplished.

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