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A CurtainUp Review
By Barbara K. Mehlman
Noises Off is a glorious opportunity to watch seven slamming doors, one breaking window, 10 trips up and down stairs and 17 false entrances, while listening to 73 flubbed lines, 46 miscues, one dramatic highlight, 22 double entendres, six regular entendres and a million laughs all while trying to find a missing plate of sardines. Or so says the producer and, of course, I believe him. Having just seen this nutty play for the fourth time, I'd believe any outrageous claim about this hilarious farce.
The first time I saw Noises Off was in December 1983 when it opened on Broadway with Dorothy Loudon, Brian Murray, Victor Garber and Paxton Whitehead. I saw it again in York, England and then again performed by an American community theater group. Each time it was done breathlessly well even by the amateur troupe and each time I held my sides laughing.
Judging from the production I just saw at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, it appears that the show never loses its punch, no matter how many times it socks it to me. Even though I know the whole story, even though I know the end, even though I can recite half the lines, it doesn't seem to matter, it just gets funnier and funnier.
The story of Noises Off, if you can call it a story, depicts the onstage and backstage antics of a fifth-rate acting troupe touring in an awful sex farce. Nothing On is the title of this play-within-a-play. The curtain opens on the dress rehearsal of the first act of Nothing On the night before it opens and with things not going well. In the second act we hear the first act of Nothing On from backstage, after it's been running a month. The third act takes us back to the first act of Nothing On yet again, after two months of touring. It is, deliciously so, a disaster.
Noises Off premiered in 1982 in London but the idea was born twelve years earlier when pllaywright Michael Frayn was standing in the wings of a London theatre watching a performance of a quick-change, arms-flapping farce he had written for Lynn Redgrave and Richard Briters. According to Frayn "it was funnier from behind than in front and I thought that one day I must write a farce from behind". He did, using the theatrical phrase for "sound heard in the wings" for his title and the result is by far the craziest comedy ever to hit the stage -- a farce by which all others must now be measured. It's not an easy play to pull off. Timing is critical, no, more than critical. It is the rise and fall of this play. Actors must memorize lines that ultimately don't make any sense, as well as frenetic blocking that expends more energy than a marathon. What's more it takes Marine-like discipline for the actors not to break up themselves.
The Paper Mill troupe, led by Brian Murray who is reprising the role of Director Lloyd Dallas which he played on Broadway, does it admirably wellt. The rest of the cast performs well, particularly Fiona Gallagher as Brooke Ashton and Leo Leyden as Selsdon Mowbray. I confess that I missed Dorothy Loudon as Dotty Ottley but Anne Rogers plays this part well even though, she's missing a bit of Loudon's sarcastic edge which is an interpretation that worked better for me than Rogers' more clownish choice. But this is a criticism so insignificant as to be nothing more than some minor noise from me. Disregard it and go have a wonderful time at the Paper Mill.
James Brennan clearly is one of those directors with the gift to keep the whole play in his head as he puts the actors through their paces. Though there appears to be chaos onstage, it is, in fact, tightly-scripted chaos, and it all goes off without a hitch -- I think. Truth be told, you wouldn't know if there was a mistake anyway, a tribute to this fine cast. With the exception of Brian Murray, these actors are not well-known to most audiences, but they're as professional as any Broadway troupe today.
The technical crafting of this production is excellent though you will not walk away from this play saying, "fabulous set,""marvelous lighting", or "I'd kill to her her thong bikini."
The the two-story, seven-door set is constructed so there are no obstructed views, and fits the Paper Mill's stage perfectly from end-to-end. The lighting, always bright white when viewing from the front and dimmer when viewing from backstage, is unobstrusive and never distracts your attention. Sound is perfectly modulated so that the incessant slamming doors don't become an irritant. And the costumes are merely regular street wear. except, perhaps, Fiona Gallagher's risque ensembles. But then, given her character, maybe it is street wear.
While Frayn is best known as a farceur and satirist, his new drama, Copenhagen has been a hit in London and will open on Broadway in April. He's also won new audiences with a novel, Headlong.
CurtainUp's review of the London production of Copenhagen