Roundabout Theatre Company considerately provided two Playbills for its new attraction Jan. 14 at the American Airlines Theatre — one for Noises Off, Michael Frayn's valentine-with-pratfalls to the theatre, the other for the show-within-the-show Nothing On, the door-slamming sex-comedy aggressively going to hell in a hand-basket on the stage.
Nothing On, we are informed by the "program," is the 17th play by Robin Housemonger, a seasoned practitioner of the lost (or, certainly here, mislaid) art of bedroom-farcing. Perhaps, if you've ever been to Perth, Western Australia, you caught his Hanky Panky or his Briefs Encounter. Then, again, perhaps not.
Noises Off, With Megan Hilty and Andrea Martin, Opens on Broadway; Red Carpet, Curtain Call and Party!
The curtain rises on the living room of an English country-estate tended by a Cockney housekeeper, Mrs. Clackett (Dotty Otley, a.k.a. Andrea Martin), who seems to be relentlessly serving sardines ("Sardines by Old Salt Sardines") and answering the phone. The place is supposed to be deserted, but it's frantically occupied by two couples — the actual owners on a surprise visit and the prospective buyers, all bent on trysting the night away — and what better time for a bungling burglar to strike!
It takes Frayn only three acts to reduce these proceedings to a hilarious puddle. Act One looks in on Noises On, getting a wobbly from-the-audience rendition of the show in a frazzled tech hours away from its "World Premiere" in Weston-Super-Mare — step one in what the "program" optimistically promises to be a "National Tour." Act Two picks up the action four weeks down the road in another jerkwater hamlet, viewing it from backstage where the actors at play are actually at war — and why not with three overlapping affairs, a raging alcoholic, fisticuffs and catfights messing up their collective muses? Act Three returns to the stage seven weeks later, and everyone's resigned to their hell, coping with catastrophes, doing whatever it takes to get to the finish line.
All this is quite a different kettle of fish 'n' chips than what director Jeremy Herrin served up last season in Wolf Hall. The pendulum couldn't swing much farther from the bloody political intrigues of Thomas Cromwell. "Precisely," he beamed back after the performance. "That's why I wanted to do it. I wanted to have the challenge."
Although the comedy always careens in a certain direction, how it reaches its own particular level of chaos varies with productions, so this one may strike some as freshly inventive. "I tried to be faithful to the script — if not to the letter, to the spirit of it," said Herrin. "Maybe it came out in rehearsal that we did some different things. I haven't seen the play before so I can't compare, but we tried to be responsible."
He cast his Noises Off for comedy combat with a number of veterans of funny wars. "They're all different," he pointed out. "We cast them all for their own particular energies and their skills. The fact that they work together as a company was really important. It's really a wonderful ensemble, and that's what we wanted to create."
Martin, who collected a Tony as Pippin's grandmother-on-the-flying-trapeze, plainly knows no fear and blusters all about at high speed. "I'm into the character," she said. "The only thing I'm worried about is whether I have enough energy for the show."
Make that characters, plural. She counts two: an uptight, aging British actress and the working-class maid she's trying to play. "I've never had the opportunity to play two characters before and dig deep into both of them. It's fun to go between both.
"I knew that I really wanted to make a difference between the two. I don't think it's done often like that. That was exciting for me. If you read the Nothing On program, you realize Dottie has played the character of Mrs. Clackett in a sitcom for 13 years. I wanted it to be a stock character she'd played. That gave us so much background."
The bogus program notes also cue you to her backstage affair with Garry Lejeunne (Roger Tramplemain, a.k.a. David Furr); their stars apparently crossed before in something called On the Zebra, and the actors are picking up where they left off.
Furr suffers (or perhaps enjoys) the evening's prize pratfall, a spectacular two-story tumble that was personally created for him by the circus-trained Lorenzo Pisoni, Noises Off's comedy stunt coordinator.
"I asked Lorenzo to design me a fall that was safe, funny, surprising and repeatable eighth times a week," he said. "I give 80 percent credit to him, 10 percent to gravity, then I take the rest. Roundabout was so pleased they asked him to help with the whole show."
Jeremy Shamos came to this production with an Oscar-winning record of his on-stage accidents (he was the zealous over-actor that Michael Keaton knocked out of commission with a lighting rig in "Birdman") — and performed here accordingly, executing a loopy slip-and-slide on the sardine-oiled stage. "I've done lots of physical stuff in my career, but it's been a while," he admitted. "Now, I'm older, and it's a little more dangerous. I think I do all that pretty naturally, though, because I have sorta silly bones. Lorenzo organized a lot of it and did things that made it safe. Plus, we have padding underneath to protect ourselves — elbow pads and things."
The title role in the musical Chaplin alone qualifies Rob McClure for his seat at the table in this show. He's the chronically harried stagehand-gofer who, when called upon, jiggles like jelly with stage fright (terrific effect, this). "It's all muscle tension," he explained. "It's probably terrible for me, but it's tension around my spine."
He is sidelined for most of Act One while the plots are being set up, but, as the play grows more frayed and desperate, he's forcibly moved to front and center. "I like to think Tim is a loving tribute to every stressed-out stage manager I've ever had. They really are theatre's unsung heroes. He proves just how far some go to save the day."
Tracee Chimo as the show's stage manager speaks in a still small voice until she gets pissed off. "I love how gentle and sweet she is," Chimo said. "In the midst of this big farce, she is kinda the real straight man. I don't have any shtick or anything like that to do. So it's fun to be the person that everybody looks to, to keep it together."
If Campbell Scott has the voice of exasperated authority as Noises On's director, that is because he has on occasion directed. "Usually as a director, you have to be a lot nicer to the actors," he noted, "so it's been nice with this to get all that anger out."
This is Daniel Davis' second shot at playing the alkie actor who plays the burglar. "I auditioned for this character the last revival," he recalled. "When I came in, I saw my friend, Richard Easton, sitting there, and I thought 'No, no, it's Richard's turn. And maybe, some day, they'll bring it around again.' Well, they did, and I'm doing it."
The last of the nine performers to hit the post-show press line was Megan Hilty — worth the wait, looking great in steep stiletto heels — and she was the only one with a pack of fans waiting for her at the stage door. She, very much, looked the star.
She's the bimbo ingénue whose eye contacts are always popping out and stopping the show in its tracks. It's a sexpot part she had to think long and hard about taking (and then somebody pointed out that Katie Finneran won a Tony Award doing it).
"I thought I'd never play a character who exposed so much — I have a giant tattoo on my back because I thought nobody'd want to see me with my clothes off — so this is not something I really enjoy. It's something I had to get right with mentally before. I had to tell myself, 'As long as you're confident, it doesn't matter what you look like.' If you show an iota of insecurity, people won't pay attention to your performance. They're going to be worried about you, and they're not going to know why."
The luscious Kate Jennings Grant consulted her character's fake bio to figure out who she is. Her Belinda Blair is the show's backstage sexual newscaster, but appears to have nothing going on herself. "The program says she's married and has children and several dogs" is all the actress revealed. "I don't want to give away my inner choices. I think the audience has to decide for themselves what's really going on with Belinda. I think Belinda has been happily married for a long time and I think she's living vicariously through some of the fine people in this show."
Grant gets her share of physical comedy, however—and with the usual female disadvantage. "I do it in heels, but they're character shoes that dancers wear, with a nice strap around them," she said. "Risk is a worry, but we all take care of ourselves. Michael Frayn told us on the first day of rehearsal: 'Health and safety.' That was his message to us. When you have a play like this, you have to trust everybody and take care of everybody. This cast really does that. This is the Olympic team you dream to be on."
And has she ever been in a show that approximated the awfulness of Noises Off?
"Are you kidding? There are things that go wrong in every single show you do. There are disasters you're always covering up almost every performance. Something will always go wrong. This play has all of those moments in two-and-a-half hours."