A lot has to go right for a play to go this wrong — which is the delightful paradox at the heart of Michael Frayn’s oft-revived 1983 hit Noises Off, which follows the production of a fictional play called Nothing On as it careens hilariously off the rails. The actors in the play-within-a-play bumble through the needlessly complicated technical aspects of the production, including dozens of door slams in the first act alone, as well as the highly complex — and apparently crucial — positioning of a prop plate of sardines. The need to flub so many cues, lines, and entrances in just the right rhythm must make Noises Off comparable to an Olympic event for even the most seasoned theater actors. Luckily, in director Jeremy Herrin’s high-energy staging at the American Airlines Theatre, the cast, which includes Andrea Martin, Campbell Scott, and Megan Hilty, knows how to fail like pros.
The actual plot of the Nothing On is borderline incomprehensible and not all that important — suffice it to say it involves an old British vacation home, a lot of misunderstandings, and a two-story set featuring seven sometimes-functioning doors. The comedy comes from the behind-the-scenes antics of the six actors, the director Lloyd Dallas (Scott), and two stage managers, Poppy and Timothy (Tracee Chimo and Rob McClure). In true slapstick form, each of the players has a hidden game or bit of actorly preciousness that contribute to the dysfunction. Dottie Otley (Martin), living up to her first name, can’t remember what she’s supposed to do with the damn sardines; Frederick Fellowes (Jeremy Shamos) breaks out into nosebleeds at the mere mention of violence; Belinda Blair (Kate Jennings Grant) enables Frederick’s neuroses; Brooke Ashton (Hilty) delivers her lines like an overly coached child star; Garry Lejeune (David Furr) is encumbered with a bizarre vocal tick; and Selsdon Mowbray (Daniel Davis) is a salty old drunk who needs to be kept away from the whiskey.
We’re treated to three distinct performances of Noises On, and the second, memorably, features the set turned back-to-front, so we see the production from the wings. At that point, a love triangle involving Lloyd, Poppy, and Brooke, as well as a covert relationship between Dottie and Garry have destroyed all hopes for backstage harmony. The third act is a true tour de force of mishap upon mishap, capped by a meticulously choreographed tumble down the stairs.
The script gives each of the stars several moments to shine, and Andrea Martin anchors Herrin’s production with a brilliant manic energy — there’s a certain athleticism to her almost graceful fumbling amidst the chaos. The direction, performances, and set design by Derek McLane create a symphony of shouting and flop sweat, turning pure slapstick into high art. A-