Michael Frayn Reworks Farcical 'Noises Off

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP   |   Dec. 18, 2001 at 12:06 PM
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NEW YORK, Dec. 18 (UPI) -- British playwright Michael Frayn, whose "Copenhagen" won a Tony Award for best play last year, has dusted off his most popular farce, "Noises Off," for an all-star revival on Broadway that is, if anything, funnier than ever.

Frayn has tinkered with this "Noises Off" production that originated in England last year, speeding it up and combining the second and third acts by cutting the second intermission. Compared to the 1982 original, this revised version is even more uproarious as it heaps indignities on the cast of a touring theatrical company that makes pale the travails of Job.

The revival at the Brooks Atkinson Theater has a cast headed by Patti Lupone, Faith Prince, and Peter Gallagher, all better known for their work in musicals, and Richard Easton, who won the 2001 Tony for best actor in a play. It also marks the American debut of the English director Jeremy Sams, an all-around theater man who also is known as a composer and musical director, author, adapter and translator (Wagner's "Ring").

The show also elevates Katie Finneran, a young actress with first-rate credits, to a new level of stardom playing the ingénue in the play's farce-within-a farce who is so inept that she is infectiously hilarious. She's a tall, leggy blonde with a stage presence so ingratiatingly explosive that you are likely to remember this production for her uninhibited performance alone.

Frayn spoofs a really terrible British sex farce titled "Nothing On" as it is performed by a third rate provincial theatrical company in three different towns.

We see the show as the audiences would see it from their seats out front in Act 1, which concerns "Nothing On's" final rehearsal. In Act 2, we go backstage to watch the action there as actors make their entrances and exits to an invisible stage where the scene enacted in Act 1 is being performed. The last scene is the final performance of the tour at the Municipal Theater of fictional Stockton-on-Tees.

Everything that can go wrong in the theater goes wrong with "Nothing On" as the actors come unhinged in a most delightful way for reasons of sexual intrigue, rivalry, malice, stupidity, and too much liquor. They resort to improvisation when they fall down stairs, get caught in doors, lose their pants, collide with each other, and play dirty tricks with a plate of sardines, all the while displaying exquisite, if manic timing.

But every show has at least one flaw, and "Noises Off" errs in letting LuPone get away with a cockney accent so broad that she is almost unintelligible to American audiences. Otherwise, she is merely wonderful as Dotty Otley, a fading television sitcom actress who is financing the show, in which she plays a dotty housekeeper with the outlandish diva mannerisms recalling LuPone's Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard."

Peter Gallagher plays Lloyd Dallas, the play's laid-back, all-in-black director, with just the right smirky innuendo as he tries to juggle backstage romances that refuse to stay up in the air even though Dallas thinks he is God. Helping to screw up his balancing act is his put-upon assistant Tim Algood, played to the point of nervous exhaustion by T.R. Knight.

As Dallas' main love interest, Brooke Ashton, Finneran is the perfect bimbo whose undress and belle poitrine become visual gags. She is never funnier than when she is down on her hands and knees looking for a lost contact lens that must be found if the show is to go on, as all shows -- even bad farces -- must.

Easton makes the most of a small role of a likable old lush of an actor who tends to forget his lines and has the amazing ability of finding a bottle no matter how well hidden, and Prince is engaging as actress taking a second lead and playing the conciliator in backstage conflicts whether or not she is welcome in that role.

Rounding out the cast -- all of whom are expert at the kind of physical humor that farce (and silent movies) require - are Robin Weigert as the flappable stage manager, Edward Hibbert as a serious actor looking for motivation, and Thomas McCarthy as the young actor on whom the indomitable Dotty has set her sites.

Sams' direction is flawless, and designer Robert Jones' traditional many-doored set, evocatively lit by Tim Mitchell, guarantees that confusion will reign in the country living room of "Nothing On" and the backstage areas of theaters that have seen better days and better plays. "Noises Off" is a theatrical treasure, just what the doctor ordered in this post-tragedy era.

Playwright Frayn has given his Lloyd Dallas character the perfect line to sum up why theater can be therapeutic in times of stress: "I haven't come to the theater to hear about other people's problems. I've come to be taken out of myself, and preferably not put back again."

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