A Lot’s Goin’ on at NOISES OFF

In between the many belly laughs I had while watching the hilarious new production of NOISES OFF, I found that three very different items popping into my head.

Item Number One involved Charles Nelson Reilly. Do you recall this actor who convulsed those who saw his Tony-winning stint in HOW TO SUCCEED in 1961-1962 and willions more who enjoyed his 181 appearances on TV’s THE MATCH GAME? Reilly had a funny face that he knew how to make ever funnier. To punctuate his punch lines, he had that amusing “Haw-haw” trademark wheeze.

Reilly eventually turned to directing, and when I interviewed him in 1990 about a play he was staging with multi-Tony-winner Julie Harris at Long Wharf in New Haven, I asked if he assumed it would come to Broadway.

The face I’d always known as terminally silly suddenly lost all its mirth and turned terribly serious. Reilly soberly said “Broadway? It’s a miracle that anything ever gets on anywhere.”

And while I knew that getting a play written, optioned, cast, directed and produced had to be a series of terrifying challenges, Reilly’s dour face made me realize that Getting Them On was even much, much harder than I’d ever imagined.

Getting NOISES OFF on must be harder still. “It’s all those words,” complains Dotty Otley, the dotty star of the double-entendre-laden sex farce NOTHING ON.

That’s NOISES OFF’s play-within-a-play. Or should we say turd-within-a-play? NOTHING ON references all those inane British farces that have such unsubtle titles as RUN FOR YOUR WIFE and LET’S GET LAID.

However, there’s much more to Michael Frayn’s landmark comedy than “all those words,” however riotous they are.NOISES OFF requires plenty of pin-point perfect timing and equally solid pacing as a cast of six does what it can to make NOTHING ON into something good.

Speaking of “Something Good” — THE SOUND OF MUSIC taught us that “When God closes a door, He opens a window” (and YES, that show is where that expression originated). NOISES OFF’s director Jeremy Herrin ensures that when someone closes a door, another character is opening another hardly a split-second later. Making that happen flawlessly for two-plus hours is more of a miracle than even Reilly bargained for.

Item Number Two concerned the 1973 film version of THE THREE MUSKETEERS. Did you know that when it began filming, director Richard Lester and writer George MacDonald Fraser expected it to be a three-hour movie?Eventually they decided to halve the thing, release THE THREE MUSKETEERS in 1973 and turn the remaining footage into a second film — THE FOUR MUSKETEERS — which they’d bring out in 1974.

The actors were livid. If management got two sets of grosses and profits from the film, shouldn’t the actors have been paid twice? Well, I’d say that considering how hard the nine actors work in presenting NOISES OFF as well as NOTHING ON, they should be paid twice — once for each comedy.

“Nine? I thought you said six,” you’re muttering. Six of the actors indeed play actors in NOTHING ON; the other three are NOTHING ON’s director, stage manager and assistant stage manager. (More on them later.)

Item Number Three takes us to CONCENTRATION, a TV game show of yore. If you’re of a certain age (and concentrate hard enough), you might remember this NBC program that ran from 1958 through 1973 and has been revived a few times since.

What CONCENTRATION contestants did was look at a board that sported rectangular boxes numbered from one to 30. They’d call out numbers and try to find two that matched. Needless to say, there was a great deal of trial-and-error, but as contestants kept calling out numbers and clues, they had to CONCENTRATE so they could match up ones they’d seen earlier.

And theatergoers who attend NOISES OFF must concentrate, too, to get the full thrust of the fun. They must retain what they see of a NOTHING ON rehearsal in NOISES OFF’s Act One, for Act Two will take them backstage while NOTHING ON is being performed, and the must remember who’d previously done what to whom.

Because they’ll get even more exposition in Act Two, they’ll have more to remember for NOISES OFF’s Act Three. And yet, all this concentration and memorization is worth it, for the more you remember, the more fun you’ll have. (More to the point, remember to get tickets for NOISES OFF.)

Frayn’s farce gives new meaning to Irving Berlin’s lyric that “There’s no people like show people; they smile when they are LOW.” Many NOTHING ON performers exhibit very low behavior as they relentlessly and mercilessly sabotage their castmates.

Well, as Max Bialystock claimed in THE PRODUCERS, “Actors are animals,” and NOTHING ON proves him right. Dotty Otley (Andrew Martin: hilarious) is a cougar interested in the much younger Garry (David Furr: risible), who parrots much of what the others say. Garry believes he has a romantic rival in Freddy (Jeremy Shamos: appropriately ludicrous), but he shouldn’t, because the guy is a dumb ox.

Lloyd Dallas is their director and allegedly the King of these Beasts. Campbell Scott terrifically delivers low-octane sarcasm and passive-aggressive diplomacy when dealing with his cast – especially with the VERY old Deuteronomy of Selsdon Mowbray (Daniel Davis: mirthful), who’s more than partly deaf. Selsdon alone makes Lloyd wish that in his youth he’d never worn a T-shirts that proclaimed “But I Really Want to Do Is Direct.”

Ah, but some of Lloyd’s problems are of his own making: he’s been sleeping not only with Poppy (Tracy Chimo: wonderful as always), whom he turns into a wounded bird, but also with Brooke Ashton (Megan Hilty: more on her later), who’s the dumbest of bunnies.

There’s only one couch on the NOTHING ON set – and poor sleep-deprived and owlish stage manager Tim Allgood (Rob McClure: all good indeed) tries to catch forty winks behind it. But there’s apparently been a lot of casting on this one couch. The catty Belinda Blair (Kate Jennings Grant: wonderfully unctuous) loves to tell everybody who’s cavorting with whom, always pretending that she’s not divulging anything because “Oh! I thought you knew!”

Megan Hilty – the best of the nine strong performers – makes Brooke Ashton the type of (non-)actress who turns to the audience each time she speaks and says her dialogue in an entirely artificial way. After she delivers each line, she gives a big smile of triumph, as if to say “Wasn’t that spectacular?”

In fact, no. There’s more to acting than just learning lines, but damn if Brooke knows this. Metaphorically speaking, Brooke is on automatic pilot on a plane with no link to the radio tower. Lloyd obviously chose Brooke for her spectacular figure, which theatergoers have ample opportunity to view, given that she’s in her underwear most of the night. (Well, plenty of characters wind up having almost “nothing on.”) But as far as acting ability goes, there aren’t enough rotten tomatoes in the world to throw at Brooke Ashton – and not enough bouquets of roses to give Megan Hilty for being so spectacularly uproarious.

And yet, NOISES OFF’s ultimate message is one that has been time-honored since Thespis of Icaria strolled onto a Greek stage: The show must go on. We’re lucky that this one continues to do just that. The only reason theatergoers would want it to end is so that they can reward everyone with one standing ovation and dozens of handclaps and cheers.