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Noises Off: Theater review by David Cote
Explaining why a thing is funny is hard enough. Trying to account for something you know is hilarious—but then isn’t—is harder still. Case in point: The Roundabout Theatre Company has revived Michael Frayn’s ingeniously structured 1982 comedy about a group of jobbing British actors trapped inside a failing sex farce. The first act is an endlessly bungled midnight dress rehearsal; the second is a disastrous performance seen from backstage; and the third takes place toward the end of the play-within-the-play’s tour, with the cast battered, demoralized and nearly nuts. Noises Off is a precision-timed laugh machine, and director Jeremy Herrin’s ensemble is peppered with some of New York’s finest comic actors. So why did I chuckle so little—perhaps even less than at the weak 2001 mounting?
Various excuses could be made. There’s the culture gap: Good as our American troupers are, they don’t quite get the jauntily sleazy vibe of English sex comedy (the accents aren’t great, either). Or the fault lies in the director: Herrin’s last gig here was the two-part Tudor epic Wolf Hall, which proved he can weave overlapping narrative threads but not necessarily two hours of verbal and physical comedy. Or you could blame the material itself: Is Noises Off—with its deconstructed Benny Hill Show sight gags and bravura layering of in-the-wings “reality” onto fictional stage business—too tired and possibly overrated?
I wouldn’t go with the last one. The genre Frayn is lampooning (via a whoops-me-pants-fell-down trifle called Nothing On) is certainly a 20th-century relic, but the human foibles and jealousies are evergreen and universal. If nothing else, this should be a retro hoot and a chance for nine actors to show off their slapstick and goofing. How can anyone not cackle at master-of-squirm Jeremy Shamos slipping—for what seems an entire minute—on sardine juice? Okay, that one got me.
So, fleetingly, did other elements: Megan Hilty’s blond ditz, giving superbly wooden-chirpy line readings; Rob McClure’s mousy, frantic understudy/stagehand; and Andrea Martin, going full zany and threatening a cheating lover with an ax. But these are only sparks, not a blaze. All due respect to the gamely guffawing audience with which I attended, but I wanted to make more noise.—David Cote
American Airlines Theatre (Broadway). By Michael Frayn. Directed by Jeremy Herrin. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 30mins. One intermission.