“Noises Off,” which performed this week at Guthrie Theater, is not an average play – it is a play within a play. The acclaimed 1982 comedy, written by Michael Frayn, comments on how the drama of putting together a theater production can sometimes be funnier than the performance itself.
“Noises Off” tells the story of a British theater troupe’s painful dress rehearsal and opening-night performance of the play “Nothing On,” which is also a farce. Characters have onstage and offstage personas. This can be confusing, but the Guthrie’s production is very understandable.
In the first act, many comedic moments are gleaned from the frustration of Lloyd Dallas (Nathan Keepers), director of the play “Nothing On,” toward his dysfunctional cast.
For the first 10-or-so minutes of “Noises Off,” the audience can identify Lloyd’s character only as a booming voice – like the voice of god – giving directions to his actors and sighing with contempt when they make mistakes.
Keepers’ exasperated rendition of Lloyd is a humorous contrast to the rest of his oblivious “Nothing On” cast. However, sometimes Keepers’ British accent slipped into American-English – his R’s too hard and the stress on certain words misplaced. Tim Allgood (played by JuCoby Johnson), also had accent slip-ups.
Sally Wingert opened the show as Dotty Otley/Mrs. Clackett, showing off her stellar British granny accent and hilariously vivid facial expressions.
Kate Loprest consistently shined as Brooke Ashton, a blonde airhead whose over-exaggerated acting as Vicki in “Nothing On” elicited well-deserved laughter and whoops of satisfaction from the crowd.
At one point, Brooke loses a contact lens and instantly the rehearsal is halted as her fellow cast members get on their knees to look for it. “I found it!” says Brooke. “Where was it?” says her cast member. “In my eye!” she responds.
Remy Auberjonois cracked up the crowd as Frederick Fellowes – an apprehensive leading man who is overcome with a nosebleed at the slightest depiction of violence.
Auberjonois’s knack for comedic timing and physical humor made him a true asset to the cast of “Noises Off.”
Beyond the acting, the show’s scenic designer Kate Sutton-Johnson executed the set perfectly.
Around the show’s halfway mark, the entire set makes a 180-degree turn so that its back side faces the audience – providing a perfect opportunity for the audience to experience the entertaining backstage turmoil.
Physical humor kicks into overdrive as the characters become aware of each other’s love affairs with other cast members and discover mutual disdain for their director, Lloyd. Jealousy – paired with a desperation to follow through with the production – provokes characters to carry out comically petty deeds.
What is so perfect about the play’s format is that the audience already knows what is supposed to happen – we were there for the dress rehearsal in Act One.
When the show crumbles before our eyes in the second half of the play, it is highly amusing.
Everything that could go wrong goes wrong: Selsdon (Raye Birk) arrives on stage with his pants at his ankles, Frederick hits his head and enters the stage twice at the wrong time, disoriented, Garry (Johnny Wu) has a jealous outburst, Belinda (Laura Jordan) and Brooke struggle to place the right props on stage at the right time and Dotty gets hit in the face with a plate of sardines.
The second half magnifies every character’s weaknesses – whether it is Selsdon’s lack of hearing, Frederick’s aptitude to get bloody noses and faint, Dotty’s complicated love triangle with Frederick and Garry, Brooke’s stupidity or Belinda’s terrible attempts at covering for missed lines – and turns them into pure comedy.
“Noises Off” director Meredith McDonough did a fabulous job guiding her actors through a complicated plot and timing each comedic moment, despite some accent missteps.
“Noises Off” capitalized on Frayn’s comical script, but it was the show’s talented actors that truly gave it life.