Lest you’ve forgotten – Laugh: to show that you are happy or that you think something is funny by smiling and making a sound from your throat – Merriam Webster
There are several surprising things about Roundabout’s revival of Michael Frayn’s 1982 madcap farce. The first is almost consistent laughter erupting somewhere in the audience over the course of three acts (with one intermission). Three acts without a slump in energy or imagination. Even if you’re not an aficionado of slapstick, masterful direction and wonderful casting will get under your skin and broadly tickle.
The second is choosing Director Jeremy Herrin, whose last outing here was The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Wolf Hall. Though both shows require creativity and the visual management of a stage filled with players, pacing and temperament couldn’t be more different. The multifaceted Herrin, I’m delighted to confirm, is superb at both genres.
We find ourselves at a provincial theater in Weston-Super-Mare, England. The company is in dress rehearsal for Nothing On which opens tomorrow, or rather, today, as setbacks and questioning drags out Act I. Roundabout has cleverly included the program for that play within your Playbill. There we learn that “Director Lloyd Dallas read English at Cambridge and stagecraft at the local benefits office” and that “author Robin Housemonger was born in Worcester Park, Surrey, to a family unremarkable in every way except for an aunt with red hair who used to sing all the high twiddly bits from The Merry Widow over the tea table.”
On stage Dotty Otley (Andrea Martin) playing batty housekeeper Mrs. Clackett, is unsuccessfully trying to remember entrances and exits based around two telephone calls, a newspaper and a plate of sardines. “It’s like a slot machine up there,” she says of her mind,” I open my mouth and don’t know what’s going to come out.” Dotty keeps house for employers Flavia and Philip Bent (Belinda played by Jennings Grant and Frederick played by Jeremy Shamos) who are evading taxes in Spain while the house gets sold.
Comedy treasure Andrea Martin may never have been better. You wouldn’t think there’d be so many ways to get it wrong and so many theatrical variations on confusion. Though absent minded Mrs. Clackett is ripe for mugging, the venerable performer keeps coming up with new takes on classic moments. Her physical humor especially is a master class.
From the theater floor, exasperated Director Lloyd Dallas verbally lunges, parries, soothes, quips, and teeth-clenched, repeats. Campbell Scott, having the time of his life outside of his usual dramatic casting, is not just amusing but completely credible as the least harebrained of the bunch. Later, of necessity on stage in Nothing On, he couldn’t be more fish out of water.
Enter real estate broker Roger Tramplemain (David Furr as actor Garry LeJeune) and dumb blonde Vicki (Megan Hilty as actor Brooke Ashton) intending to use the ostensibly empty house for a trist. Furr employs an act/react mechanism with the precise timing of a fine Swiss watch, lets phrases trail off to wry tongue-tied gesture as if second nature , tumbles downstairs, breaking the banister in two places, with the skill of a trained stuntman, and later, hops up them in a feat of circus balance with his shoelaces tied together.
Hilty immerses herself in airhead amateur Brooke, from self conscious, teetering walk, to wide eyed recitation of emotionless lines (always facing the audience) and mouthing Garry’s dialogue in order to note cues. At one point, in search of a regularly fallen contact lens, she feels her way downstairs headfirst by belly and knee, high heels and pink rear rising behind. Brava.
Daniel Davis Kate Jennings Grant, Andrea Martin, Campbell Scott, Megan Hilty
Encountering Mrs. Clackett, Roger identifies his companion as a prospective tenant. A door upstairs won’t open, while the front entrance downstairs won’t close. Stage Manager, Poppy Norton-Taylor (Tracee Chimo) must get poor dogsbody Tim (Rob McClure), who also understudies and keeps accounts, to fix these. Chimo’s arc from harried to hysterical is pitch perfect. McClure’s beleaguered character handily turns on a dime. Eventually pressed to go on stage, his shaking involves such tumultuous body tremor, it looks like a cartoon.
Before Roger and Vicki get settled, the Brents return home. Still wary of Inland Revenue, Philip instructs Mrs. Clackett that she hasn’t seen them, which will shortly complicate matters. Palpably insecure Freddie requests motivation for simple blocking while Belinda, source of all gossip, explains to their director that Freddie’s wife just left him.
Jeremy Shamos makes a running gag of stress induced nosebleeds fresh every time. Acting so discombobulated, he sometimes appears to be in the wrong play, the actor bumbles with the best. One particularly long, slip/slide on a floor wet with sardine oil is priceless. Again utilizing stairs in an example of unfathomable balance, Herrin has Shamos hopping up them with his pants around his ankles. Kate Jennings Grant’s Belinda is kind of a conduit between potshots, pivots, and miscommunication, a flexible lever in the pinball activities of others. Grant is effectively fluid imbuing her character with recognizably thespian attributes.
The last of this fractured, third-tier cast is Sesldon Mowbray (Daniel Davis, credibly, gracefully drunk, addled, and sweet tempered) whose hard of hearing, short of memory dipsomaniac spends the evening sleeping, crashing through a set window and in perpetual pursuit of a bottle.
Liaisons get seriously tangled when flash assumptions are made. (Some of these, as concocted by the inspired director of Noises Off, are based on ridiculous physical accidents.) Overwrought thespians grow vindictive. Mistakes require increasingly extensive improvisation. Everyone is suddenly in the wrong place, wearing the wrong costume, or without proper prop.Pandemonium ends with a terrifically inventive sight gag. Rarely does one see a company so equally talented and consistently in sync.
Jeremy Herrin’s immensely creative Direction showcases the kind of timing at which one can only marvel.
Derek MacLane’s ersatz Tudor Set is just right both in front of and behind the scenes. Michael Krass’s Costumes are suitably ugly yielding pay-off underpinnings.
Photos By Joan Marcus
Opening: Jeremy Shamos, Kate Jennings Grant, Favid Furr, Andrea Martin, Campbell Scott
Roundabout Theatre Company presents
Noises Off by Michael Frayn
Directed by Jeremy Herrin
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd Street