“Doors and sardines! That’s what it’s about! That’s farce! That’s theater! That’s life!”
Or so bellows the director from the back of the house at a final disastrous rehearsal of a provincial British sex farce. And so, once again, even the most farce-resistant among us — and you know who we are — actually believe him for the perilously goofy duration of “Noises Off,” Michael Frayn’s farce-within-a-backstage-farce that has nestled securely at the pantheon of high-end delirious nonsense since 1982.
Although it would be wonderful, once in a while, to see such serious Frayn provocations as “Copenhagen” or “Democracy,” you won’t catch me complaining about the return of this familiar modern classic — especially with Andrea Martin at the center of a cumulatively virtuosic nine-expert ensemble of smart and fearless comic actors.
British director Jeremy Herrin, known here only for the doggedly straightforward “Wolf Hall,” turns out to have a shrewd silly streak and the kinesthetic stopwatch essential to a play that has more intricate, dangerous choreography than most Broadway musicals.
The comedy in the first of three acts feels a little forced. But Herrin — not incidentally, artistic director of a company named Headlong — soon catapults the physical and verbal humor headlong into increasingly inspired opportunities to watch characters who play second-rate actors play out their real lives while trying to perform the complications of their second-rate play. Slippery sardines have seldomed seemed as ominous as when Jeremy Shamos, terrific as a hapless neurotic, flops around on them.
Martin, not traditionally cast as a love interest, has a grand and adorable time as the aging demi-star (played with more broad vulgarity by Patti LuPone in 2001) with money in the show. Megan Hilty aims way beyond bimbo clichés as an awful sexpot who walks like a cowgirl trucker and who doesn’t know what to do with her arms. David Furr keeps surprising as a dim-bulb actor whose sentences require conceptual leaps and whose header over the banister is a real one.
Campbell Scott is unafraid of being ridiculous as the director whose vanity is colored by a disappointing career. Daniel Davis brings an odd elegance to the sloppy old drunk and Rob McClure, as a gofer, demonstrates the splendid comic timing he had as Charlie Chaplin.
Derek McLane’s fake Tudor estate is aptly tacky. As fine as the splashy stunts, however, are the tiny details — an actor’s surreptitious use of a mustache comb, the nervous director’s inexplicable wrapping of his wrists in duct tape, the real secrets behind the fake doors. As the director might say, these are also life.