WHAT “Noises Off”
WHERE American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St.
INFO $67-$137; 212-719-1300, roundabouttheatre.org
BOTTOM LINE Fearless, delirious nonsense.
“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.