Here’s Megan Hilty bouncing down a stairway — bounce bounce bounce — and strutting her outrageous stuff in a pink beribboned bustiere, mouth agape and eyes betraying an overabundance of oxygen to the brain. Here, too, is Andrea Martin dueling losingly with sardines, which sometimes fly off the plate like birds heading south for the winter. Politically incorrect? Only if you’re brain dead. This is Noises Off, the Roundabout Theatre Company’s happy antidote to all things January, a percussive dose of slamming doors, wince-inducing pratfalls and enough suggestive tomfoolery to fill the bill at Minsky’s.
Michael Frayn’s giddy backstage farce opened on Broadway in 1983, hung around for 18 hit months and returned a decade later for another solid run (the cast included Spotlight‘s Oscar-nominated director Tom McCarthy in his only Broadway acting gig). Carol Burnett and Michael Caine toplined Peter Bogdanovich’s 1992 film adaptation. Being catnip to audiences, it’s also irresistible to actors with any sense of clowning and an odd taste for the bruises that must come with performing this nine-clown, one-ring circus act.
Set in the British flyover, a touring company is halfway through its first and only run-through of “Nothing On” (speaking of innuendo), a comedy that is to open in about 15 minutes. The setting of the play-within-the-play is a country house with many doors on two levels, and the scene opens with dotty Mrs. Clackett (Martin), having completed her housekeeping duties, anticipating a quiet sitdown in front of the telly with a comforting plate of sardines. Answering a telephone call, she lets us know the owners are in Spain and the house is unoccupied. Not for long, however. Thinking it’s the housekeeper’s day off, real estate agent Roger (salivating David Furr) arrives for a nooner with eager-to-disrobe Vicki (Hilty). Further complicating matters is the equally unexpected arrival of the tax-dodging owners, Philip (Jeremy Shamos) and Flavia (Kate Jennings Grant) for an amorous anniversary celebration. There’s an aging burglar (Daniel Davis) for whom such jobs are a distinct comedown from his glory days. Oh, and there’s also a sheik interested in renting the place.
Desperately trying to manage it all is the director (wise-cracking, bulging veined Campbell Scott), who’s been having it off with both his servile assistant (Tracee Chimo) and his star playing Vicki (yes, Hilty); and the stage manager and all-purpose understudy (Rob McClure, the most accomplished clown in the cast). Complicating matters further is the fact that all the characters are addressed by their “real” names. Each of the three acts takes place in a different backwater (Weston-super-Mare, Ashton-under-Lyne and Stockton-on-Tees), and they all consist of the Act I of Nothing On from differing perspectives as the interpersonal game of musical chairs-and-beds leads from one very funny calamity to the next.
Jeremy Herrin, the masterly director of Wolf Hall, lets Noises Off wind up a bit slowly, but once all the gears are in synch, the show is a dazzlement of set-pieces fit together with jigsaw perfection. Martin, who recently astonished us on the trapeze in the revival of Pippin, returns to her roots as a mistress of the comic gesture, doing more with a plate of fish or an old newspaper than you may have imagined possible. Hilty, the Smash star who was enchanting in the Encores! revival of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, does physical comedy as though to the manner born.
Derek McLane’s set is a perfect facsimile of a cheapo road-company production, while Jane Cox’s lighting is, necessarily, more polished. The costumes by Michael Krass are almost as funny as the script.
And now to, let’s call it “Noises On”: Maurice Hines – Tappin’ Thru Life, off-Broadway at New World Stages. Maurice and his younger brother Gregory, proper children of Harlem, started out as a tapping duet, grew into a threesome with their father called Hines, Hines & Dad, and continued working together in such shows as Sophisticated Ladies. Gregory eventually became the bigger star through movies and television until his death in 2003. Maurice, now 72, is back onstage with a show that recounts his adventures over a life lived mostly on stage and delivered mostly through the metal plates on the heels and toes of his dancing shoes.
But this is much more than “and then I did so-and-so.” Indeed, if anything, it’s a resolutely and oddly private affair, with key personal details glossed over. But under the fleet direction of Jeff Calhoun (Newsies), and to the accompaniment of the Diva Jazz Orchestra, a nine-member ensemble led by drummer Sherrie Maricle, Tappin Thru Life is another tonic for the winter blues. Hines proves himself a thoughtful singer with a light baritone, and his tapping is undiminished by age. That’s something he proves in the faux-rivalry he shares with John and Leo Manzari, a young tapping duo, also brothers, whom he has brought along just as the Hines brothers were taught and encouraged by the likes of dance legends Charles “Honi” Coles and Henry LeTang. And there’s a sensational debut by 12-year-old tap phenom Luke Spring (who alternates performances with others).
All great, but what makes Tappin Thru Life positively soar is the brilliant arrangements played by the gifted Divas on such standards as “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face.” There are tributes to Sinatra, Garland and Ellington performed with exquisite taste, blistering passages of tap — and a whole lot of swing. Don’t miss it.