In play-script parlance, ''noises off'' means commotion in the wings. In Michael Frayn's lunatic parody at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, ''Noises Off'' means commotion everywhere - pratfalls, double takes, missed cues, antic props, volatile temperaments, and more comic catastrophes than you could shake a slapstick at. The Broadway version of the long-running London hit salutes the Christmas season with a Santa Claus bagful of tricks and devices. Santa's helpers for the occasion are a team of farceurs ready to romp into action at the crack of Michael Blakemore's directorial whip.
''Noises Off'' operates on the sound farcical premise that whatever can conceivably go wrong undoubtedly will. Mr. Frayn has constructed three first acts - or rather the same first act repeated in three different circumstances. The play-within-a-play begins as Dotty Otley (Dorothy Loudon) and her provincial touring company are dress-rehearsing a nitwit sex farce called ''Nothing On.''
A month later, the ramshackle production has moved from Weston-super-Mare to Goole, where Mr. Frayn gives us a backstage look at a disastrous Wednesday matinee. It is a hilarious orchestration of organized havoc and choreo-graphed pandemonium in which Mr. Blakemore and his company achieve their finest hour. Thirty days later, in the play's last stand at Stockton-on-Tees, ''Nothing On'' has reached such a state of shambles that Dotty and her little band improvise their way to a final curtain.
''Noises Off'' exemplifies the old truism that the art of comedy is timing and the heart of farce is conviction. Dotty is the impresario of ''Nothing On.'' From its hoped-for profits, she may be able to put something aside for retirement. This fact plus the production's attendant crises lends the plot the air of desperation that is a further essential of a farcical situation.
While Miss Loudon may not be ideally cast as a fading British actress playing a typical British folk character - the ''daily'' - she places her own comic imprimatur on dotty Dotty. A strong supporting cast includes Brian Murray as the harried, two-timing director of the troupe and Deborah Rush (ingenue) and Amy Wright (assistant stage manager) as the girls he is two-timing. Paxton Whitehead , farceur extraordinaire, brings all of his practiced finesse to the role of the company's principal ditherer. The preposterous purposes of the occasion are also stalwartly served by Victor Garber, Linda Thorson, Jim Piddock, and Douglas Seale.
Besides a whole catalog of antic props, the visual comedy of ''Noises Off'' is abetted by set and costume designer Michael Annals's scenery, lighted by Martin Aronstein. Besides the aforementioned backstage view, there is a florally wallpapered duplex living room with seven unruly doors, a French window, and the inescapable staircase. Coming in the midst of so much frantic commotion, a suddenly empty, silent stage wins one of the bigger laughs of the evening. In fact, the noisiest noise of ''Noises Off'' is the sound of audience laughter.