Turn All “Noises Off”
and Listen to the
“Fiddler on the Roof”
by TONY VELLELA
Some years ago, the Screen Actors Guild, in an effort [one supposes] at increasing its influence in the choice of the Best Picture Oscar, invented its own award for best ensemble acting in a motion picture. Since movies are shot in small segments, out of order and practically never with the entire cast in any one scene, the idea that an ensemble sensibility even exists is questionable. But there you are. This is referenced because the place where a genuine ensemble effort does exist is on the stage. And if ever there were to be a special Tony Award for Best Ensemble Acting by a Cast, its hands-down recipient this season would be the very game gang over at the American Airlines Theatre, turning in spectacular work in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s current revival of Michael Frayn’s by-now classic farce, “Noises Off.”
Simply stated, the premise follows a second-tier collection of British actors as they stumble through the final rehearsal of the comedy “Nothing On,” when practically nothing works. We then see how it all looks in performance from backstage, and finally, how the finished product plays out near the end of its tour. Under Jeremy Herrin’s razor-sharp direction, unfolding in the dual sets by design master Derek McLane, this randy collection of actors, director, stage manager and stagehand attempting to salvage a minimally viable performance generates enough smiles, giggles, laughs and guffaws to keep you warmed up for the rest of the winter.
The ‘marquee’ name they hope will attract an audience in the provinces belongs to the somewhat dotty Dotty Otley, late of a telly sitcom in the role of a lollipop lady [crossing-guardian]. And in the hands of veteran comic actress Andrea Martin, her every moment on and off stage rings true with fuzzy execution, muddled delivery and wide-eyed wonder. And just as the producers of that fictional farce were wise to place Dotty center stage, so too were the producers of this revival, to entrust this key character to Ms. Martin. Hers is a career that has been on an upward trajectory ever since I first visited her and fellow cast-members of Toronto’s Second City in 1978, when they were producing the now-fabled comedy series “SCTV.” Along with Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Martin Short, Dave Thomas, John Candy, Harold Ramis, Joe Flaherty and a few others, they wrote and performed comedy gems, and earned their creds onstage at Toronto’s Old Firehouse, where improv routines spilled out every weekend. And then as now, Martin’s quicksilver timing, fearless delivery, self-assured presence and generous spirit toward fellow cast-members sets the tone for the entire endeavor.
When the dim-bulb, sex kitten character recalling Diana Dors and Barbara Nichols, played by Megan Hilty makes her initial entrance onto the ‘Nothing On’ living room set, and proclaims “All these DOORS !!,” she says it all. Every good farce is fashioned around wrong entrances, and here, they’ve got [by my recollection] nine to choose from. Hilty adds a touch of verisimilitude to her character by silently mouthing every other actor’s lines, trying to keep her place. That practice is just one of many this cast carries out so splendidly. As an insecure actor desperate to discover his motivation for every moment’s movement, Jeremy Shamos provides comic moments Buster Keaton fans would relish. Rob McClure’s shattered-nerves stagehand can’t control his high-voltage shakes when pushed into any under-rehearsed understudy’s nightmare, going on at the last minute. In fact, every cast member in either play fills out mildly lurid backstories and sadly misfiring romances, to perfection.
The entire midsection of the piece displays what’s happening backstage during a chaotic first act performance, which means very little dialogue is permitted. This gives the section a silent-movie quality, when it’s all gestures and motions, and, as Norma Desmond would say, “Faces.” Playing a mindless, memory-challenged housekeeper, Andrea Martin brings to mind some of the past female greats of this very difficult art, such as Britain’s Hermione Baddeley, Joyce Grenfell and Gracie Fields, and America’s other beloved Gracie, Gracie Allen.. Her Dotty wrestles throughout with a disappearing, errant plate of sardines, which plague her every moment. And anyone who seems intent on finding fault with this stunning production may be confusing sardines for carp.
Gestures play a silent role in the revival of “Fiddler on the Roof,” where the endlessly versatile Jessica Hecht displays the kind of heartfelt, loving care for her five daughters with her hands. Watch as Momma Golde caresses their cheeks, smoothes down their hair, strokes shoulders, always in service of reassuring her offspring that God will provide, even when Poppa isn’t able to. Hers is a story-teller’s art, showing when telling isn’t always enough.
And Poppa’s hands tell their own tale. Five-time Tony Award nominee Danny Burstein gives his Tevye an Everyman quality, so eager not to offend his God when his hands rise up to heaven to plead for a little relief. “Fiddler” remains one of Broadway’s most beloved musical creations, showcasing the brilliance of book-writer Joseph Stein, composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick. Based on the Sholom Aleichem stories of life during the Russian upheavals that exiled Jews from their centuries-old homelands, it’s a plot-heavy work – when Burstein famously reminds God that he has ‘blessed’ him with five daughters to marry off, it foretells the challenge of keeping all their personalities and destinies distinct and still moving. Director Bartlett Sher wisely assisted in guiding set designer Michael Yeargan’s vision for this revival, keeping stage pieces to a minimum, without creating a meager landscape. The little village of Anatevka that we see reflects its simple, basic construct. What Sher has used, to fill out the landscape, is people. His cast of thirty-six townspeople, tavern owners, butchers, tailors, and the indomitable matchmaker Yente bring a real place to life. There’s just enough variety in the browns and greys of Catherine Zuber’s costumes to indicate poverty, the abandonment of self-esteem. And the fresh take on their dances by choreographer Hofesh Schecter does not diminish the memory of original director/choreographer Jerome Robbins.
This plain-folk sentiment is embodied so effectively by Burstein, an average-size man who struggles so movingly with the forces of tradition and change that threaten to shred the very fabric of their lives, and at the same time, to inform the to-their-parents almost shocking choices of the daughters. Notice, for instance, how the behavior of second daughter Hodel [the luminous Samantha Massell] reflects the movements of the mother, a tribute to the performances of both women. And among the tide of young men considering the daughters as potential mates, note especially how Adam Kantor’s timid tailor Motel, and Ben Rappaport’s determined student Perchik make every moment count, always aware that their very presence is enough to disrupt their hoped-for unions with two of the daughters.
Despite its revered place in Broadway history, “Fiddler on the Roof” remains a tricky business to put over – so many emotions, so many traditions, so many conflicts – and how to balance the serious, even somber cords that bind these multi-generational families, friends, neighbors, loved ones and enemies, all competing for the right to exist on their own terms. Happily, this version finds that balance. And the fiddler remains standing, sure-footed and steady, on the roof.
The clever Paper Canoe Theater Company initiates its new family-oriented production “A Sock’s Fables,” with apologies to Aesop, running from February 6 to March 13, and includes a special free puppet-making workshop. Details of the Brooklyn-based endeavor are available at http://www.papercanoecompany.com . . another family-based series is already underway via Theatreworks USA at The Kaye Playhouse, including shows featuring Curious George, Skippyjon Jones and Henry and Mudge. Check it out at www.hunter.cuny.edu/kayeplayhouse. . . the Theatre Development Fund (TDF) has updated its popular TKTS App to simplify the purchase of the least expensive same-day tickets to Broadway and off-Broadway shows. You may download the Official TKTS App free of charge at the iTunes app store, android store or at www.tdf.org/tktsapp. . . and the acclaimed Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg returns to BAM with Chekhov’s final masterpiece, “The Cherry Orchard,” from for four performances in mid-February. Contact www.BAM.org, or phone 718-636-4129.
There’s an old show biz adage, that goes something like “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Look no further than the American Airlines Theatre’s sparkling rendition of “Noises Off” to appreciate its message. And a good deal of contemporary comedy owes its origins to those brave, hearty souls known as stand-up comedians. Just close your eyes for ten seconds and imagine yourself in front of a marginally hostile room full of people who are determined to not laugh. Okay, eyes open. And cast them onto three very informative and educational books on the subject. In one of the most comprehensive overview historical deliveries on any subject, Kliph Nesteroff’s superb chronicle, “The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy” from Grove Press, will keep you enthralled, with its wonderful mix of notes, quotes and anecdotes about where our world of comedy came from, how it rewarded some and punished others, and what to look for when trying to satisfy your own personal likes and dislikes when it comes to humor . . . to get behind the serious business of funny, Sophie Quirk’s “Why Stand-Up Matters – How Comedians Manipulate and Influence” from Bloomsbury Publishing, will enlighten and surprise you . . . and the man most often credited with shaping the style and sensibility of this generation of comics is revealed in the Harper Perennial book, “Becoming Richard Pryor,” by Scott Saul . . . and just in time for Black History Month, Square One Publishers has released Steward F. Lane’s remarkably comprehensive “Black Broadway: African-Americans on the Great White Way.” From its origins in the nineteenth century, right up to landmark productions such as “The Color Purple,” Lane incorporates observations not only from marquee actors, but also from the producers, designers and directors who have been responsible for seeing that we all get to see these great accomplishments.
TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series on theatre, “Character Studies.” His Best Play winner at the New York International Fringe Festival is published by Playscripts, and ‘Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” by Art Age Press. He has written several other plays and musicals, countless magazine and newspaper articles about the performing arts for Parade, Dramatics Magazine, Rolling Stone, Theatre Week, Reader’s Digest and several other publications. He has taught theatre courses at Columbia University Teacher’s College, the New School, HB Studio, Lehman College and other institutions and arts centers across the country. Currently, his sessions on all aspects of theatre are offered at the 92nd St. Y – his next series, on every Tuesday morning in March, is titled “Let the Sons Shine In,” examining in detail the male central characters in “The Glass Menagerie,” The Seagull,” “The Rose Tattoo” and “Our Town.” Visit 92Y.org for details.
CARMEL CAR & LIMOUSINE SERVICE, in business since 1978, has been selected as the official transportation company for Intermission Talk. Its wide variety of services, including special theatre packages, and reservations, are available at www.carmellimo.com, the Carmel App, or 212-666-6666.