Once is not enough. Even twice seems inadequate. Still, no matter how many times you see “Noises Off,” you won’t get all the jokes or catch every sight gag in Michael Frayn’s rollicking 1982 backstage farce about a second-rate theatrical troupe taking an asinine British sex comedy on a tour of the provinces. Funny lady Andrea Martin leads the nimble cast of this well-tooled revival helmed by Jeremy Herrin, who kept his comedic sensibilities under wraps in last season’s austere RSC production of “Wolf Hall,” but cuts loose here.
A marvel of technical engineering, Frayn’s ingenious play presents progressive views of a comic disaster. In Act I, a bedraggled road company is flailing through the dress rehearsal for “Nothing On,” a silly sex romp scheduled to open that night in the backwater hamlet of Weston-super-Mare. Act II presents a backstage view of the same show a month into the run, by which time the company is seething with its own mini-dramas of love, lust, jealousy, murderous rage and heartbreak. Act III is timed to the end of the tour, when the backstage passions erupt and spill into the stage play, creating the kind of door-slamming, trouser-dropping, pratfall-prone and utterly manic chaos that is pure farce.
Frayn also penned the clever program for “Nothing On” — complete with absurd actor bios and pretentious academic notes — that auds will find tucked into their Playbills. The plot of this pretend show is the typical farce fare of illicit lovers, gullible fools and diverse scoundrels creeping around a supposedly empty country house. Intent on their various guilty errands, they barely avoid colliding with one another while making their split-second entrances and exits through a battery of doors and one big window.
Perfect timing and utter sobriety are the two essentials for playing farce, even a fictional one. But everything that could possibly go wrong goes wrong during the final dress rehearsal that opens the show. Lines are dropped, props are mislaid, pieces of scenery break down, and the old character actor who plays a burglar (Daniel Davis, in splendidly droll Shakespearean mode) keeps wandering off in search of a bottle.
Martin (“Pippin,” “SCTV”), who was born to make us laugh, is a perfect hoot in the pivotal role of the scatterbrained actress cast as the scatterbrained housekeeper, who keeps mixing up her character’s bits of stage business. (Does she put the phone down and exit with a plate of sardines? Or is she supposed to leave the sardines and exit with the newspaper?) Of such grave choices is comedy made.
Besieged by panicked actors clamoring for plot clarification and character motivation, the director (Campbell Scott) emerges from the back of the house to sarcastically remind them that they’re playing farce, not Greek tragedy. All you have to know, he tells them, is that farce is about doors and sardines. “Getting the sardines on, getting the sardines off. That’s farce. That’s theater. That’s life.”
Would that it were that simple. But the maladroit real-estate agent played with considerable brio by David Furr (one of the secret soldiers in “13 Hours”) can’t seem to follow the plot, and the dim-witted chippie mouthing her lines and counting her steps while running around in her undies (a delicious turn from Megan Hilty) keeps losing her contact lenses. Best of all, the anxiety-riddled thespian played by Jeremy Shamos — who has polished to glowing perfection his endearing look of vapid naivete — needs comfort and, if not joy, some solid motivation to get through this nonsense.
On the laugh meter, Act I is only so-so. But as a setup for the next two acts, it’s brilliant.
Act II is bust-a-gut funny. We’re looking at the backside of Derek McLane’s tongue-in-cheek set of the split-level country home where all the romantic dalliances are taking place onstage. “Nothing On” has been on the road for a month, and by the time of this matinee performance at the Theater Royal in Ashton-under-Lyne, the performers have settled into romantic arrangements that reflect the shenanigans on stage.
This is where helmer Herrin puts his well-drilled ensemble through the synchronized chaos that can come crashing down on their heads if someone misses a beat. (Indeed, Furr’s clumsy character takes some literal pratfalls that look dangerous.) With perfect timing, characters make stage exits that put them smack into backstage scenes that mirror the muddle they thought they’d escaped onstage. It’s often said that the mechanism of farce is like clockwork. Here, we actually get to see the guts of the clock and watch all the wheels turning.
It’s also where we get a closer look at Rob McClure’s intrepid stage manager, charged with the job of arranging an assignation between the director and one of his current lovers — and an even closer look at Tracee Chimo’s wonderfully forlorn assistant stage manager, when she realizes that she’s not the director’s only girlfriend.
Her misery is so palpable, you can only laugh — which is the fun thing about farce. It appeals to our base urge to indulge in Schadenfreude — the joy and relief of watching someone other than ourselves making utter fools of themselves.
Act III, in which nobody really gives a damn anymore, is like being in Alice’s Wonderland and watching the whole pack of cards come tumbling down. The anarchic humor, while darker, can’t compare with the side-splitting physical comedy of the preceding act. But it does present the priceless sight gag of Kate Jennings Grant, as the company Ms. Fixit, crawling onstage on her stomach, to replace a misplaced prop.
Like “Law & Order” reruns, “Noises Off” seems to be always playing somewhere in the civilized world, a perfect specimen of its generic art form. And that’s exactly the way it should be, because this kind of comedic brilliance never gets stale.