The Rashomon of Farces: Noises Off Leaves Us Rolling

The great news is that

Michael Frayn’s

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

Australia.

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

Dope.

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.”

Mr. Frayn

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.