- Courtesy Of Rob Strong
- Cast of Noises Off
Nine doors, nine actors and nonstop silliness are the ingredients in Northern Stage's production of Michael Frayn's farce-within-a-farce, Noises Off. It's a loving parody of the stage itself, and this top-notch cast scampers up and down a magnificent two-story set to skewer the illusion of theater and the delusions of its practitioners.
The play depicts a mediocre troupe of British actors stumbling through a feeble farce called Nothing On, the most wince-worthy sex comedy imaginable. The little band of overactors may have limited artistic talent, but their version of professionalism guides them through missed entrances, dropped cues and pratfalls that the script never had in mind.
Frayn ridicules theatrical excess while demonstrating precisely what's wonderful about live performance. The show treats us to three views of the farce's first act. First up is a technical rehearsal in which the director is still coaxing the company through the mechanics of comedy bits that seem to have no chance of soaring to life when the show opens the next day. The rehearsal keeps breaking down, and the actors keep breaking character.
We next see the show in mid-tour. Now the set spins around and our vantage point is backstage. The company has been stewing in romantic jealousies and misunderstandings for a month, and these explode into a chaotic backstage pantomime while the show goes on. The stage entrances are made in the nick of time, with every exit a chance to fan the flames of backstage conflicts. Conducted in silence, the sight gags, pranks and vicious glares are hilarious, but also a master class in the acting principle that performers convey their characters' needs — in this case, idiotic ones.
Finally, as the tour drags to its end, the set spins again, and we see a performance in which everything that can go wrong does. The actors try to salvage things with desperate ad libs and foolish onstage fixes to a rapidly decaying storyline. These doomed heroic gestures are interspersed with surreal moments of mortification, such as the time an actor has forgotten his necktie but his scene partner sticks to her line about how he's tied it.
Numerous noises off — the theatrical term for sound emanating from offstage — punctuate the action, usually signaling disasters for the acting company, not the characters. Frayn's title hints at the audience's role in the experience, for we must make up an explanation for what we hear. Watching each entrance from front and back peels away mystery and trades it for comedy. But there's still something unseen behind every closed door.
The characters in Nothing On are pure caricature, their players not much deeper, but Frayn paints their foibles vividly. Dotty Otley (Patti Perkins) is an aging TV star whose career is now reduced to theatrical claptrap but whose billing still assures an audience. Otley's craft is now no match for managing more than one hand prop, and the shrugging Perkins shows how she's made peace with her limitations.
Otley has started a dalliance with the much younger Gary (David Mason). He can't form a coherent sentence that isn't written in a script, and so communicates through Mason's hysterically pliable facial expressions.
The show's self-important director, Lloyd (Jamie Horton), has shuttled his affections from assistant stage manager Poppy (Jenni Putney) to vacuous ingénue Brooke (Emily Kron). As the tech rehearsal grinds on, Horton portrays Lloyd as a man proud of keeping his irritation firmly under control, but of course it's only a matter of time.
Putney gives Poppy the steely composure to absorb the panic flying around the production, but she, too, reaches a limit. Brooke's acting skill consists of looking good in a blond wig and garters. Kron plays her so frozen in a trance of overacting that she never breaks character; even her search for a lost contact lens is conducted as a ditz.
Aging trouper Selsdon (Bill Kux) can't remember his lines or time his entrances and is in constant danger of getting drunk backstage. Belinda (Susan Haefner) is the company's gossip and show-must-go-on cheerleader. Stage manager and understudy Tim (Michael Hornig) is a busy bundle of nerves.
Second-billed Fred (Mark Light-Orr) peppers the director with questions about motivation, as if his sex farce character harbored any. Light-Orr rumples his brow apologetically when confessing how stupid he is about "doors and things," hoping to be pitied for straining to keep up with the show's physical demands.
The humor in Frayn's 1982 satire is still perfectly modern. And though the play is long — more than two and a half hours, with a single intermission — the time flew by for Friday's audience in continual laughter.
This production emphasizes the three-ring-circus quality of the material. Director Peter Hackett often unfolds multiple comic bits simultaneously, almost daring the viewer to keep track of the pants drops, door slams and high-speed prop exchanges. The performers maintain brisk clarity during these fusillades of comedy; only a supremely well-rehearsed ensemble can enact the complete breakdown of a stage play.
With precise timing, the performers add that little freeze at the peak of each outlandish gesture that lets the audience relish the action. Just as difficult as all this physical comedy is the matter of portraying actors who are good enough to be employable and bad enough to be hilarious. With stagy voices and campy movement, the ensemble showcases the vanity and affectation of certain thespians.
Theater is about creating illusion, but this show ultimately rests on actors swept up in their own delusions. The director sees himself as God but barely keeps his backstage trysts going. Fred can play a suave romantic but gets nosebleeds under pressure. Both Dotty and Selsdon are past their prime, while Gary and Brooke may never reach theirs.
For everyone in this lovably awful cast and crew, the willing suspension of disbelief includes being oblivious to one's own shortcomings and carrying on regardless.