What’s the funniest act ever written for a comedy? In my opinion, it’s the second act of Michael Frayn’s 1982 Noises Off, currently on view in the highly recommended Roundabout Theatre Company revival at the American Airlines Theatre.
Because I urge anyone who’s never seen this comic masterpiece to put it immediately on the must-see list, I’m obliged to confess that explaining why I believe as I do qualifies as something of a spoiler. Proceed with caution, though keep in mind that it’s one thing to describe the myriad causes of hilarity and entirely another to experience it from a theater seat.
Constructed in three acts (Roundabout’s revival only pauses between acts two and three), Noises Off follows a troupe of English actors performing a third-rate farce called Nothing On. (A spoof program is included in the playbill.)
The first act has the shambolic thesps rehearsing the complicated Nothing On action. The second act has them performing the woeful comedy on tour about a month later. But whereas in the first act they’re rehearsing on the set of Nothing On (a mock-Tudor weekend getaway), the second act has that set turned 180 degrees so we can see what happens backstage to and among the characters as numerous mechanical problems and intramural squabbles silently arise, such as the attempts of the director to mollify the two women in the production that he’s been stringing along. The third act has the addlepated troupe going through their complex motions a couple of ill-starred months later, at the end of their long tour, with the Nothing On set again turned to the front.
The brilliant workings of Frayn’s second act — originally directed by frequent Frayn collaborator Michael Blakemore at London’s Lyric Hammersmith and then transferred to the West End’s Savoy — relies not only on the intricate, humorously cliché-ridden sex farce of the mythical Nothing On but on manipulating it so that during the second act you know precisely what’s occurring in the “play” as the backstage calamities unfold.
It’s the entanglements of this inspired set-up that establish the play’s comic primacy. I can think of nothing that compares to it. What’s required of the director and the ensemble is unparalleled in my theatergoing experience. Indeed, Blakemore — the only director in history to win a Tony in the same year for a play and a musical — has been quoted as saying that when he first read Frayn’s script, the thought of staging it “made me want to go lie down at once.”
Indeed, the blocking for Noises Off is so complex that the play’s published version has two columns for the second act, one for the play and one for the play within the play. This isn’t a unique phenomenon to either the published actors version or trade version, but it’s hardly commonplace.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Applause so strong it’s as if the audience is awarding purple hearts for valor.[/pullquote]
The distinguishing characteristic of the Noises Off second act is its near-exclusive reliance on physical comedy. Though the actors can be heard and sometimes seen delivering the Nothing On dialogue when they’re “on stage” (and partially seen through a window), almost no words are spoken as they interact explosively “backstage.” Much of this entails potentially bruising conduct. Watching the actors execute it is not only laugh-provoking but hugely impressive and it surely explains the ovation that greets the cast at the curtain call, as if they’re being awarded purple hearts for valor.
The exhilarating success of Frayn’s second act, however, also constitutes a problem: how to top it with the third act. It’s a problem that Frayn doesn’t quite solve, though in his determination to achieve the well-night impossible, he’s tinkered with the act repeatedly since the initial production. I’ve seen a few of those trial balloons and will say, without recalling precisely what previous takes have been, that the Roundabout go is the closest I’ve witnessed to a satisfactory resolution.
Having stated my conviction that the Noises Off second act is the best comedy act I’ve encountered, I have to concede one or two other points. The first is admitting that on a single previous occasion I came almost as close to falling off my seat. That was watching Bert Lahr cut loose as the characters Hyacinth Beddoes Laffoon and Nelson Smedley in The Beauty Part, S.J. Perelman’s not completely polished 1962 send-up of contemporary mores. The only two comedies I consider perfect? Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday.
Having mentioned Wilde and Kanin, the second point I must concede is that we all judge many works of art in the context of our own times. In years, decades and centuries to come, will others agree with me about Noises Off (or Wilde or Kanin) or wonder what I was thinking? Will it, for instance, require a familiarity with the formula for 20th century sex comedies to grasp the depth of humor of Nothing On?
You could easily suggest a timelessness about Noises Off (and Nothing On) — that the “actors” have something in common with the rustics putting on the Pyramus-Thisbe skit in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Do we laugh at the situation in Midsummer as readily and heartily as did Elizabethan audiences? Probably not.
From nation to nation, generation to generation, tastes in comedy shift seismically. When Fernandel and Jacques Tati tickled French funny bones in the middle of the last century, America didn’t respond as vociferously. (Jerry Lewis may have been more popular in France than here.) Would Myron Cohen, Sam Levenson or George Gobel, to name only three, strike today’s comedy lovers inured to a broader, in-your-face style, as even mildly amusing? For me, Fred Allen strolling down Allen’s Alley was the funniest comic turn on radio. Thousands shared my enthusiasm then. Would hundreds concur now?
So, perhaps Noises Off may only have temporary appeal. But I still insist that as I’m living in the here and now, Noises Off contains the funniest second act I’m ever likely to see. And so are you.