The great news is that
Noises Off -the best and funniest farce I’ve ever seen-is back on Broadway
at the Brooks Atkinson, and the outcome is a triumph. At the best of times, the
word “tonic” springs to mind. But that doesn’t quite do it this time round. Essential is closer; fix might be better; hysterical has always been welcome in my
corner. It’s an essential hysterical fix! In other glad words, my friends, you
must see Noises Off without delay.
No matter how many times I’ve
seen this ultimate backstage farce-four, and counting-it’s always had me and
everyone else on the floor with laughter. The only test this time was whether
the American cast in the Royal National Theatre production, brilliantly
directed again by Jeremy Sams, would pull it off as
promised. What a trifling little test for the likes of Patti LuPone, Peter Gallagher and Faith Prince!
The Broadway cast is superior
to the highly regarded one I saw at the National-possessing, for one thing,
richer talent in depth. Ms. LuPone has played the
diva before, and she will again. But she’s great fun as both
Dotty, the fading star, and Mrs. Clackett, the
snarky working-class maid without whom English farce
just wouldn’t be English farce. But everyone in this first-rate ensemble is a
treat, including a cameo by last season’s best-actor Tony Award winner, Richard
Easton, evoking the otherworldliness of Ralph Richardson as he revels in the
role of an ancient, forgetful actor and lush named Selsdon
Mowbray. It’s hard to imagine Noises Off performed better, though the original 1983 Broadway
production with Dorothy Loudon approaches fable.
For those of you who think
Michael Frayn must be a serious philosophical fellow
according to the Heisenberg Principle of his
international hit Copenhagen , he is and he isn’t. When I lived in England, he was merely considered among the wittiest men
in the land. (He was a longtime newspaper columnist, among more desirable
things.) But farce-that timeless, peculiarly British invention via Feydeau-is in his blue blood.
Don’t tell anyone, but the
point and secret of traditional English farce is this: Whatever you’ve heard
about it, whatever great legends it may have created, it has always been
wonderfully and truly terrible. That’s why there’s never been any real Broadway
equivalent. English farce is unique, and Mr. Frayn
has appreciated better than anyone that the more uniquely awful it is, the
funnier it becomes.
Hence his own remarkable
invention of Noises Off , deliriously
spoofing an unbelievably bad English farce performed
by a tatty provincial touring company who are even worse than the farce they’re
performing. Mr. Frayn has entitled his
play-within-a-play Nothing On -in
itself a loving tribute to those terrible real-life West End farces, No
Sex, Please-We’re British and Run For Your Wife . I’ve seen them both, and for the life of me I
couldn’t follow what on earth was going on between the slamming doors, the
falling trousers and the vicar caught in the wrong house with the babe in a
garter belt. I lost the plot. But you’re meant to. Nothing On , the inner farce of Noises
Off , is therefore concerned with illicit sex, a country house with many
doors, and sardines. Why sardines? Why not? As Mr. Frayn
explains, doors and sardines are what theater is all about!
Then again, he was reared in the English
theater of the 1940’s and 50’s, when repertory companies on the lower rungs of
the hierarchy known as a No. 2 Tour or, God forbid, a No. 3 would perform up to
three different productions every week. Small wonder there were times when the
actors weren’t certain which play they were even appearing in, or why. Lines
would be glued to the furniture onstage, and the scenery wobbled precariously.
Those were the glorious days of the English repertory system, and Mr. Frayn’s affection for them is a happy one.
It’s why his imaginary
English program to Nothing On -to be
found within your Noises Off
playbill-is essential reading. We learn, for example, that Dotty Otley is making a welcome return to the stage to create the
role of Mrs. Clackett following her ever-popular role
as Mrs. Hackett, TV’s belovedly risqué traffic
warden. And that Belinda Blair has been on the stage since the age of 4, when
she made her debut in Sinbad the Sailor as one of Miss Toni Tanner’s
Ten Tapping Tots. Since then, adorable Belinda has been seen in such comedy
hits as Don’t Mr. Duddle!
We were also glad to learn that the author of Nothing On , a Robin Housemonger, came to
fame with his first play, Socks Before Marriage , which ran in the West End for nine years. His Briefs Encounter and Hanky
Panky soon followed, breaking all box-office records in Perth, Western
Nothing On is his 17th play.
But the masterly Mr. Frayn has actually created the Rashomon of English farce. We see
Nothing On from three different
perspectives in three terrific acts. The first act is a clever, almost
leisurely setup, showing the incompetent cast in a last wayward rehearsal
before opening-and closing- Nothing On in Weston-super-Mare. Mr. Frayn adores the
vanity and well-known excesses of actors. “I think you’ll agree, my pet …. ” But look at the archetypes he’s creating: the Diva, the
Rake, the Ingénue, the Gossip, the Worrier, the Drunk, the
His daring coup de theatre comes
in the second act when the set is reversed- revealing the backstage uproar
during a manic performance of everything we’ve just seen. It’s an inspired
choreographed mime that takes us to the heights of pure and irresistible slapstick
farce. The torrid love affairs within the cast come unhinged, doors slam louder
and faster than you ever thought possible, and everything falls gloriously,
calamitously apart. Until, that is, the last act-and positively the final
calamitous performance of Nothing On -when
everything really falls apart.
Everyone shines in the
accomplished cast, as I say. But special mention must be made of Katie Finneran, who brings down the house as the ingénue Vicki
(who keeps losing her contact lenses). Nobody has acted deliberately badly so
well! Ms. Finneran is the uninhibited, infectious
spirit of all memorable farce. And in an apparently supporting role, the
understated T.R. Knight is brilliantly funny as the hapless, exhausted
stagehand who gives a little pre-performance speech to the audience during an unfortunate
delay. “Any birthdays?” he asks us balefully. “It doesn’t have to be tonight.”
is a scholar and a gentleman, and a farceur for the ages. If the Noises Off producers will kindly keep
their ticket prices below $480, we’ll love them even more.