Noises Off at the Guthrie Theater

Nonstop laughing!

Kate Loprest, Nathan Keepers, Remy Auberjonois  and Laura Jordan in NOISES OFF. Photo by Dan Norman.

Are you ‘bout ready for a good laugh? How about a couple hours of nonstop laughing? That’s what the Guthrie Theater delivers with Noises Off, by Michael Frayn, a classic modern farce (and there sure aren’t many of those!) If this show doesn’t have you laughing to tears, you oughta get a plate of sardines on the way out!

An acting company is running its last rehearsal before opening a bedroom farce, Nothing On, the play within Noises Off. Act I sets up what’s supposed to happen in this play. That’s as good as telling us that it won’t. Actors can’t remember stage business or lines, technical elements don’t work, backstage contentions bubble up and the director resorts to sarcasm to avoid losing it altogether. This is what you call the setup for a calamitous opening night – and what may be the funniest act in a play ever written, Act II.

How to describe this organized mayhem? Pants around the ankles, a floozy in her underwear, doors that open and shut (or should and don’t), and plates of sardines that are never where they should be litter the story. There may be a common misconception that farce is easy to write and perform, because it’s … well, silly. Not so. Every single misstep (there are zillions in this play) is carefully timed – from its misplaced costumes and props to a gesture as small as a raised eyebrow. It’s all timing.

This makes it great fun to watch the mechanics of if fall apart perfectly-as-planned. Director Meredith McDonough absolutely delivered on this, working in tandem with a technical team that deserved a curtain call. The set revolve going into Act II, which takes us backstage, got its own applause! JuCoby Johnson playing Tim Allgood, the theater’s technician, had his moment pulling this bit off, and he was fabulous.

I loved Sally Wingert as Dotty, an actor (Mrs. Clackett in Nothing On) who can’t remember her stage business to save her life, but oh so earnestly tries! That she has an affair with the much younger Garry (Johnny Wu) is barely believable in this case, but not because of Wingert’s portrayal, per se. Wu is an extraordinarily youthful Garry Lejeune; Wingert might have been allowed a less mousy and grey-haired portrayal. Garry, with his lapses in language and loopy analyses of situations is no match for feisty and down-to-earth Dotty.

Wu is a better match with Kate Loprest, who skewers the role as the shallow pretty girl Brooke Ashton. Brooke is so disconnected to the action that she says her lines no matter what else happens, and in brilliant comic style, we always see it coming. Loprest was smashing.

The Belinda Blair character (Laura Jordan) who appears as Phillip’s wife Flavia in Nothing On, does her best to hold the cast together, but Belinda can’t quit gossiping about them, either. Jordan’s performance is a wonderfully steady influence.

Remy Auberjonois plays dim-witted, lovable Frederick Fellowes (who plays Philip and the Sheikh). Frederick faints at the sight of blood and barely maintains his equilibrium with any sort of violence. Ha! Guess what happens there? Auberjonois is perfectly cast.

The delightful addled (or is he drunk?) Selsdon Mowbra (Raye Birk) plays an aging house burglar, but as an actor, he’s become so unreliable that understudies are a fundamental assumption. Yet another hilarious mistake (watch for it). Birk, too, was beautifully matched to the role.

Act III. Somehow this troupe has toured for several weeks, and by this time it’s clear that the disasters backstage are inextricable from the disaster unfolding on it. Yes, there is a story, although McDonough seems not so invested in it, or the personal relationships that also spiral out of control. This is the one area that lacked clarity for me. Given the sensibilities of today’s audiences, I can understand why Lloyd’s duplicitous relationships are played fairly innocently, though. Better to preserve the comedy.

The spurned lover and stage manager, Poppy is given a quirky turn by Kimberly Chatterjee

The director charged with pulling this mess together, Lloyd Dallas, played by Nathan Keepers, has left a few messes of his own to clean up. His attempts to woo back Brooke with bouquets of flowers (successively diminuative), always land in the wrong hands, and the bottle of booze turns up everywhere, except where intended.

Keepers, a master of physical comedy, ultimately got his moment to demonstrate that expertise, and spontaneous cheers and applause erupted. He also served as movement director – no small feat in a show this physically complex.

Ultimately, Nothing On careens to an end, but by now it’s only loosely recognizable to the one rehearsed in Act I. Because the playwright has so brilliantly dismantled and reassembled it, we are right there with them, every bit as relieved as the actors to see this endearing troupe make it to its last line, spoken by Selsdon, “When all around is strife and uncertainty, there’s nothing like . . . (takes the plate of sardines) . . . “ Well, I won’t spoil it for you.

Noises Off received several Tony and Drama Desk nominations and awards. It runs through December 16 on the McGuire Proscenium Stage.

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