In Michael Frayn's onstage/off-stage farce Noises Off, everything that could go wrong with the show within the show (Nothing On) does: Lines are forgotten, cues are missed and messy relationships erupt in the middle of the show. Pity the characters of Tim and Poppy, the frazzled stage managers of this provincial English theatre company, who have to deal with egos, accidents and showmances.
Frayn said Noises Off was inspired after witnessing a backstage fiasco while a farce he had written was going on. "It was funnier from behind than in front," he once said.
Backstage at the current Broadway revival of the 1982 play, things are run with the serene efficiency of an air traffic controller on Ativan.
Despite the fact the script calls endless entrances and exits, countless sound, prop and lighting cues and a rotating set that reveals the backstage meltdown of the cast, the real-life stage-managing of the Roundabout Theatre Company production was an exercise in clockwork precision and team coordination, at least that's what was seen watching the show from a perch in the wings at a recent matinee.
Hopes were high that there would be something deliciously riotous to report, particularly when it was learned that Meredith Florenza would substitute for Megan Hilty in the role of dim beauty, Brooke Ashton. Though there was extra attention paid to the put-in actress, all her cues were perfect and her performance was flawless and the show ran without a trace of chaos or anxiety. Damnit.
Still, it was fascinating to watch Tony Award-winning actor Andrea Martin take comedy so seriously: as she prepared for yet another entrance, seated in a folding chair just behind one of the many doors of the set, her head bowed in concentration, listening for her cue that would return her to the onstage mayhem.
Rob McClure—who plays Nothing On's bedeviled stage manager, Tim—was loose enough in the real backstage to point to Noises Off stage manager Chris Zaccardi while dashing from stage right to left and back again during the show and mouth, "I'm playing him!"
Things have a smooth-running feel now that the show is in its second month of performances. "It's really in everyone's bones now," says production stage manager Linda Marvel. "But there are still times when stuff happens."
Like when McClure, in character of stage manager Tim, crawls under the show curtain with his arm stretching out to retrieve a stray bottle. One night in previews, it rolled out of reach, heading for the edge of the stage. The actor leapt for it but couldn't get it in time so he had to jump down into the front row, pick it up and get it back. "The audience loved it," says Marvel. "And from that mistake he knows that when it happens again, the bit will still work."
After a while, you sensed that everyone was programmed to be in a certain spot at a certain time for a certain reason. Forlenza exited a scene and a wig person suddenly materialized, ready to make a quick hair adjustment and left in a flash. Meanwhile, Zaccardi spent much of the show shuttling from stage right to stage left, checking to see if the actors had the right props and, more importantly, if they were in the right place—though by now, he says, everyone has the choreography down pat. Still, he says, in a show with so many entrances and exits, the actors find it comforting to know that someone watches over them.
"It is managing and controlling chaos to a degree," says Marvel. "[A stage manager] has to be even-keeled and steady, someone [the cast] can look to when they feel lost or when they feel things are in chaos, someone calming so they can go out and do their jobs."
Marvel watches from a backstage raised landing, looking at 'the big picture' of the show, watching several monitors—including an infra-red one that allowed her to see what people are doing in the dark—and calling cues with zen-like calm.
Some cast members, including Campbell Scott who plays Nothing On's increasingly frazzled director, still gather around one of the many backstage video monitors to watch a climactic comic pile up in the show's final act, stifling laughs, nodding in admiration.
"Good house, too," says a crew member—and the consensus after the show that this matinee—of the crowd who roared with laughter, even during the set-ups of the first act, making it one of the best audiences of the run so far.
Marvel says the hardest part of stage managing the door-slamming, pratfall-filled, schtick-friendly show with its nine-member cast was during the rehearsal period "when we had to figure it all out." "It was like doing a big Sudoko puzzle," says Zaccardi. "Or stage managing Tetris where everything keeps falling and you're hoping it all fits into place—because sometimes it doesn't."
"Everybody has to think on their feet so quickly in service of making the bit work onstage," says Marvel. "The cast is so fantastic they can go with the flow and improvise. They're constantly adding little touches here or there all within the framework of what the moment calls for. I find myself laughing during the show, say, at a new thing Jeremy [Shamos] does."
"It's like a roller coaster ride compared to most shows I've done," says Zaccardi. "Musicals have their own business but you can relax at an end of a big number. This one there's never a moment. You're always with the ride but every once in a while you feel, 'Oh, my God, I am Tim.'"