NEW YORK (AP) — The dictionary's definition of the word "farce" really should just be a poster of "Noises Off."
Michael Frayn's farce about putting on a stage farce is breathlessly clever and funny, a staple of the contemporary theater repertoire. How can it be made even funnier? The Roundabout Theatre Company somehow has found a way, armed with inspired casting.
The revival that opened Thursday at the American Airlines Theatre under Jeremy Herrin's inspired direction is achingly funny, mostly thanks to an all-star group of comedic talents allowed to run riot.
The play follows a second-rate touring company in the late 1970s that desperately tries to put aside its internal squabbles to perform a ludicrous sex farce called "Nothing On" in the hinterlands of England. As much a valentine to the theater, this show is also an aria for any of us who try hard to hit our marks despite personal turmoil.
The revival stars Andrea Martin as a forgetful star who can't remember her blocking, Tracee Chimo as an emotional stage manager, Kate Jennings Grant as a good-natured actress, David Furr as an actor unable to finish his sentences and Megan Hilty as a curvaceous, inexperienced actress who easily loses her contact lenses.
There's also Jeremy Shamos as a dim but overthinking actor prone to nose-bleeds, Daniel Davis as a veteran thespian with a drinking problem, Rob McClure as an overworked carpenter and Campbell Scott trying to hold it all together as the exasperated director who has gotten himself romantically overstretched.
All add little touches to their parts, like Hilty mouthing everyone's lines and slithering down some stairs. Martin, we always knew, can make just holding a plate of sardines hysterical, and here she's in her element. Shamos, known recently for his more serious stage work, shows his physical comedy chops here, prat-falling and slipping on a slick stage over and over like a character from Sunday morning cartoons.
McClure's manic, unhinged energy is perfect and his ferocious shaking when he's forced onstage as a replacement is stunning. Furr is a true revelation: Just listening to him bluster or watching him frantically rush around can make your ribs hurt (but not as much as his own ribs must ache after one of his tumbles down a flight a stairs).
In the first of three acts, we see the opening night rehearsal, with forgotten lines, missed entrances and general confusion. In the second act, a month later, we watch from backstage, as the actors improvise through jealousies and pranks. (A fake Playbill tucked into your regular one helps keep the characters clear and is rather adorable.)
The final act several weeks later is the last, abysmal performance. Whatever can go wrong does go wrong: Cues are missed, doors are slammed, someone's shoelaces are tied together, axes are tossed, and noses bleed.
Derek McLane's sets, which show both the company's touring manor set and the less impressive backstage, take a thorough beating — Shamos slams one poor door about two dozen times with hysterical results.
The irony is that making bad farce is easy, but making good farce is hard. Everyone onstage has to believe that the risks are real, and this new ensemble never mugs or winks, despite the silliness. They are utterly, terribly good at being bad, which is meant as a supreme compliment.