When Noises Off opened on Broadway in 1983, people didnt quite know how to write about it. It was a brilliant farce that deconstructed farces. It was a comedy that had almost no individual laugh lines after the first of its three acts, yet left people weeping with hilarity. Cirque du Soleil, the closest theatrical parallel to it, hadnt been invented yet.
So critics wrote about what a laugh machine it was: a comic train that picked up steam slowly through Act 1, chugged smoothly through Act 2 and ran full throttle through Act 3.
Thats still true, as youll see at CPCC Summer Theatre. Michael Frayn wrote this piece about the disasters that befall actors who have two weeks rehearsal to master a complicated farce; CPCCs actors had scarcely more than that, which makes the satisfying results of opening night nearly miraculous. A production thats already effective will only get more so with each performance.
Frayn, himself an accomplished writer of old-fashioned farces, gives us three looks at calamity: a clunky rehearsal, a night of backstage hijinks during the early run of a play and a performance that falls utterly apart on the last leg of a tour. That show is Nothing On, the kind of mediocre, half-sexy slapstick England has inexplicably fostered for decades.
Director Carey Kugler starts at moderate speed, accelerates the tempo in the middle, then drives hard toward the finish. His cast stays with him all the way, capering and crashing around the handsome two-story set designed by James Duke. (Gary Sivak lights it well, too.)
This is my third go-round with the show, including one with the original Broadway cast: Back then, an extra spotlight seemed to shine on Dorothy Loudon as Dotty Otley, an actress haggard from 10,000 nights in the provinces, and Brian Murray as director Lloyd Dallas, who gets driven half-mad by his dithering cast.
Kugler treats this version more as a pure ensemble. Anne Lambert still gets laughs as Dotty. (Her diction, so crucial in Halton Theater, is a model for all to follow.) But instead of using broad gestures to show us what a bad actress Dotty is, as Loudon tried to do, Lambert makes the character an old trouper too tired to march any longer. Colbert underplays Dallas wearily bitter irony, rather than laying it on thickly.
The whole show has a generational balance: The drollery comes from the older actors, including Kevin Campbells semi-senile aged thespian, while the half-dozen younger actors supply an aptly manic zeal.
The way to enjoy Noises Off most, especially in the last two acts, is to treat it like a Cirque show. It comes at you from all angles, so dont try to catch every piece of business or connect all the visual and verbal dots. Let the comedy flow over you, and immerse yourself.
By showing us all the pitfalls inherent in door-slamming farces, Frayn reminds us of the richness they contain when someone does one right.