Michael Frayn's "Noises Off," a happy import from London that arrived at the Atkinson last night, is almost more fun than we deserve, or can handle in an evening's playgoing. The term "hilarious" must have been coined in the expectation that something on the order of this farce-within-a-farce would eventually come along to justify it.
In three acts of outrageous slapstick comedy, Frayn repeatedly appears in danger of letting things get out of hand, and then blithely goes ahead and lets them, to our astonishment and delight.
In each act of "Noises Off" we are watching Act One of a paltry sex farce, entitled "Nothing On," being performed by a ragtag touring company - first during the final rehearsal, then backstage at a Wednesday matinee in one provincial town, and lastly from out front again during a performance at another whistle stop.
Nothing goes right from the start, when the harried director (his next unhappy assignment, by the way, is to stage a "Richard III" in which the title character has just come down with back trouble) must repeatedly and acidly remind the cast that their first public performance is only hours away. The second act, when the farcical goings-on reach their peak in a mounting series of backstage mishaps, shows the feckless players getting entangled with their costumes, props, each other, and the seven doors (there's a draped doorway, as well) through which they must continually plunge on and off, even when the doors stick or won't shut.
In the play's final performance (I can't resist telling you that the rehearsal takes place in the "Grand Theater, Weston-Super-More," the second act at the "Theater Royal, Goole," and the last at the "Municipal Theater, Stockton-on-Tees") the cast all but gives up, blowing their lines, inventing others, and literally hauling down the stuck curtain on a performance gone completely off the rails.
The cast of seven is just about perfect, thanks in large part to the split-second timing of the original director, Michael Blakemore, who unquestionably could have led the Jersey Giants to the Super Bowl without a hitch. Brian Murray is wonderfully befuddled as the director of "Nothing On" who, though finished with this assignment, drops by that Goole matinee in order to dally between shows with the ingenue. And Dorothy Loudon, though she does get off to too broad a comic pitch, instead of giving the part time to breathe, is enjoyably raddled as the frowzy housekeeper vainly trying to sort things out in a crazy house up for rent while the owner (a playwright, "God knows why," somebody observes) is presumably away in Spain.
But then, I admired everybody. Victor Garber is especially fine as a young rental agent intent on using the supposedly empty house for an assignation with a nubile and dotty young thing (Deborah Rush), who spends most of the time in provocative black underthings. However, singling out Garber, or Rush, would not be giving proper justice to the willowy, tony and increasingly manic Linda Thorson as the wife of the playwright, the latter played with hollow conviction by an altogether befuddled actor, animatedly set forth by Paxton Whitehead in a characterization markedly resembling that of a frightened outsized chipmunk. The playwright hasn't gone to Spain at all; he is simply dodging the tax collector.
Irresistible, too, are Amy Wright's tormented prop girl, another of the director's conquests, and Douglas Seale's cheery account of a bibulous and addlepated old character actor cast as a burglar. Jim Piddock's harassed company manager also is neatly handled.
Michael Annals' marvelously cheesy main set and cleverly functional backstage one, as well as his equally admirable costumes, are replicas of the ones he created for the London production, which is now nearing the two-year mark. Lighting designer Martin Aronstein has bathed the out-front scenes in the bright light of comedy, toning things down a bit for the backstage bedlam.
The playbill contains a program within the program, a who's who and all, identifying "Nothing On" as the work of a Robin Housemonger, and starring Dotty Otley (Loudon), Belinda Blair (Thorson) and Garry LeJeune (Garber). If there were space, I'd review Housemonger's effort, as well, for truth to tell, I hate to drop the subject, just as I hated to leave the theater.
You must have seen those play advertisements where some critic assures you that "You will split your sides laughing." I don't know whether you have seriously considered the somewhat grisly possibilities of a theater with merely four or five people actually with split sides. Not a pretty picture to contemplate. However, if you want to chancethe split-side caper, even as a voyeur, corset yourself up with bands of steel, and go to the Brooks Atkinson Theater where Michael Frayn's hilarious thespian farce, Noises Off, which opened last night, should leave you hopelessly helpless with gut-shaking, if not gut-breaking, merriment. It is pure fun.
Have you ever seen a bad English sex-farce badly done? Now, of course, you have almost all seen a bad English sex-farce, as there are so few good English sex farces, but the ones that do dare venture to our shores are generally adequately performed. Not so in England - certainly not in the more provincial provinces.
Michael Frayn has had the inspired idea of giving the inside story - the play lurking within the play - of a perfectly awful sex-farce, called Nothing On, from its desperate final rehearsal to its blissful last performance after some three months of rough touring. Really rough. Rough enough to make sandpaper feel like satin.
Nothing On, like all properly improper sex farces starts with a phone call, has a number of doors (in this case nine), a few characters bent on adultery (in this case only two, but, then, it is meant to be a poor sex-farce) and a great deal of misunderstanding.
The plot of Nothing On has something to do with sardiness, whisky and wild, wild women. Apart from the comic maid, it has a comic burglar and a comic sheik. None of this need detain us.
Because Nothing On is not the play. Noises Off is the play, and you must understand that Noises Off is about Nothing On, and also one of the merriest things to come down the pike in seasons.
From the moment the director (a long-suffering Cambridge-educated disaster with a lech for the ladies) tries to knock sense into his senselessly recalcitrant cast, Frayn's play acquires an impetus it scarcely ever needs.
Let me be honest here. The play is in three acts - each act trying to build up on the last. I am not sure that Frayn would not have done better with two acts, for the third act starts slightly to run out of steam. Still, even this act has many laughs that one would not willingly forego, and is perhaps needed to top off the evening.
No one who has ever had any experience of amateur theatricals - from either side of the trenches - can fail to recognize the monstrosities of the professional stage at its most amateurish.
Frayn's mechanism for laughter leaves nothing to chance, and nothing to be desired. The startling knockabout invention is provided with a cast-iron frame of actuality. The actors in the true play are just as nonsensical as the actors they are playing in the pretend play; yet Frayn's device gives them a kind of subterranean, closet reality.
When in the second act we are taken, as it were, backstage - the two enclosing acts being actually set in the setting for Nothing On - we get the backside, ringside view of the play and its disastrous performance in a contrivance that would do credit to Alan Ayckbourn.
The play is somehow continuing, as we can hear from our vantage point backstage, and note from the frantic entrances and exits of the characters, but the actors themselves have reduced, after a few weeks of touring, their private lives into chaos.
Simply jealousy and pure hatred run riot. The old drunken actor, being given his last chance, is chasing after his bottle; the dissolute director, taking time off from staging Richard III, is chasing his two mistresses; the younger lover of the older woman is jealously but unjustly chasing the company's professional silly-ass; the company's professional gossip is chasing fresh scandal, and the stage manager, propman and general understudy, is chasing his tail.
Then in the last act things really get difficult. And chaos is come again.
However adroit such a play is, it must be staged and acted absolutely to the hilt. It is here. Michael Blakemore who directed Frayn's gorgeous farrago in London, has repeated himself with advantage. The cast in London - originally, at least, for the play is still running in the West End - was excellent, but, if anything, the Broadway cast is better.
Dorothy Loudon, mugging her double-takes into triples, and contorting her jowls in comic anguish, is splendid as an aging TV star hoping to cash in a little on her popularity. Her tortured younger lover, Victor Garber, runs jealousy's gamut with strait-laced despair and impotent fury.
Everyone is adorable. Perhaps my favorites - purely personal - were Brian Murray as the director (watch out for his Richard III shtick), and Paxton Whitehead as a radiant idiot, who has lost his wife, wits and pants.
But then there were Deborah Rush as the most ingenious ingenue of all time, Amy Wright as a dimmed debutante of an assistant stage manager, Linda Thorson, sweetly saccharine as a gossip's gossip, Jim Piddock as a justifiably bewildered stage manager, and Douglas Seale, handsomely unreformed as a resourceful if doddery alcoholic.
Adding to the fun are Michael Annals' settings and costumes, which manage with great skill to make the dull and awful actually interesting.
The final triumphs belong, of course, to Frayn and Blakemore, who both keep everyone running on the right tracks. So if you are in the mood for either side-splitting, or even watching sides be split, don't miss Noises Off.
P.S. Do read the inserted program, with all its notes, for that mythical Nothing On. It is almost worth the price of admission by itself.
Prod them a little, and congenital theatergoers will admit the dark and dirty truth: The most calamitous nights in the theater can be almost as memorable as the most successful. It's strangely involving to watch actors struggle heroically in a ludicrous play. When absolutely everything goes wrong on stage, as when everything goes right, we're treated to drama that is urgent, spontaneous, unmistakably alive.
Yet whoever heard of a play in which both extremes of theatergoing pleasure occupy the same stage at the same time? That's what happens at Michael Frayn's ''Noises Off,'' the double-whammy English farce newly arrived at the Atkinson. All three acts of this play recycle the same theatrical catastrophe: We watch a half-dozen has-been and never-were British actors, at different stops on a provincial tour, as they perform the first act of a puerile, door-slamming sex farce titled ''Nothing On.'' With a plot involving wayward plates of sardines, misplaced clothing and an Arab sheik, ''Nothing On'' is the silliest and most ineptly acted play one could ever hope to encounter. But out of its lunacies, Mr. Frayn has constructed the larger prank of ''Noises Off'' - which is as cleverly conceived and adroitly performed a farce as Broadway has seen in an age.
The fun begins even before the curtain goes up. In the Playbill, we find a program-within-the-program, complete with cast biographies and advertisements, for the play-within-the- play. Among other things, we learn that the author of ''Nothing On'' is a former ''unsuccessful gents hosiery wholesaler'' whose previous farce ''Socks Before Marriage'' ran for nine years on London's West End. Once the curtain does rise, it reveals a hideous set (wittily designed by Michael Annals) that could well serve all those sex farces (''No Sex Please - We're British'' and the like) that do run for nine years in the West End. Billed as the interior of a two-level country house, the set is outfitted with seven doors, soiled walls and a blizzard of chintz.
The actors who stumble into view are scarcely more appetizing. The leading lady, cast as a jolly housemaid, is a broken-down television comedian (Dorothy Loudon) who keeps misplacing those sardines. Her fellow players range from a drunk (Douglas Seale) who misses his every cue to a terminally vacant ingenue (Deborah Rush) who habitually loses her contact lenses in mid-speech. Guiding one and all is an addled director (Brian Murray) who interrupts the performance to offer his company the grave instruction that ''doors and sardines'' are what farce, theater and life ''are all about.''
It happens that Act I of ''Noises Off'' is the frantic final run-through of ''Nothing On,'' on the eve of its premiere in the backwater of Weston- Super-Mare. As the run-through is mostly devoted to setting up what follows, it's also the only sporadically mirthless stretch of Mr. Frayn's play: We're asked to study every ridiculous line and awful performance in ''Nothing On'' to appreciate the varied replays yet to come. Still, the lags are justified by the payoff: Having painstakingly built his house of cards in Act I, the author brings it crashing down with exponentially accelerating hilarity in Acts II and III.
Indeed, Act II of ''Noises Off,'' both as written by Mr. Frayn and staged by Michael Blakemore, is one of the most sustained slapstick ballets I've ever seen. ''Nothing On'' is now a month into its tour, and we discover that its actors are carrying out a real-life sex farce that crudely parallels the fictional one they're appearing in. Mr. Frayn lets us see both farces at once, through the device of showing us a chaotic Wednesday matinee of ''Nothing On'' from the reverse angle of backstage. Every time an actor playing an illicit lover in ''Nothing On'' exits through a slamming door, he lands smack in the middle of the illicit love triangles that are destroying the company in private.
Besides being an ingeniously synchronized piece of writing and performing - with daredevil pratfalls and overlapping lines that interlock in midair - Act II of ''Noises Off'' is also a forceful argument for farce's value as human comedy. Perhaps nothing could top it, and Act III doesn't always succeed. Yet, if some loose ends remain, the third and final rendition of ''Nothing On'' has been sharpened since ''Noises Off'' opened in London. At last at the end of their tour - and in open revolt against each other and their production - the actors rewrite and sabotage every line of their script, wrestle their recalcitrant props to the ground and even contend with an understudy who suddenly assumes his role in mid-performance.
By that point Miss Loudon has been reduced to a limping, snarling, quivering sack of raw nerves, her eyes bulging in agony: She gets every laugh, not the least of which is a terrified ''Who are you?'' delivered to the unexpected understudy. Watching the glee with which Miss Loudon attacks her role, one imagines that she's recollecting every bomb that blighted her own theatrical career during those long years before ''Annie'' brought her in from the wilderness.
But ''Noises Off'' is an ensemble effort, and everyone works to a slaphappy hilt: Miss Rush, who ultimately takes to delivering her lines as if she were a malfunctioning wind-up doll; Victor Garber, as a stalwart young leading man who veers steadily and subtly into nervous and physical collapse; Paxton Whitehead, as a sonorous-voiced dolt who uses Stanislavsky neither wisely nor well; Mr. Seale's sotted old ham; Linda Thorson as the company's most dutiful ad libber in adversity (''How odd to find a telephone in the garden!''), and Jim Piddock and Amy Wright as the dim backstage staff. While Mr. Murray's director is at first too extravagantly frazzled, he finds his usual acidic tone once he starts blurring the distinctions between ''Nothing On'' and his other ongoing theatrical assignment, ''Richard III.''
As the evening's real director, Mr. Blakemore has let only a few broadly embroidered fits mar his replication of his original London production. Rightly, the text hasn't been Americanized, and it's possible that some onlookers will be left cold by Mr. Frayn's satirical jabs at a genre of West End play that has no exact Broadway equivalent. But Broadway audiences, especially these days, are keenly familiar with theatrical disaster. A joyous and loving reminder that the theater really does go on even when the show falls apart, ''Noises Off'' couldn't have arrived in New York a moment too soon.