PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of English playwright and screenwriter Michael Frayn’s backstage comedy Noises Off, now showing in the Paul Green Theater in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Dramatic Art, is an inside joke that pokes fun at a hapless fifth-rate theater company’s increasingly desperate attempts to get a sixth-rate British sex farce called Nothing Onhitting on all comic cylinders.
Frayn lets the audience in on the joke right away as the “voice of God” — actually Nothing On director Lloyd Dallas (played by Jeffrey Blair Cornell, thundering from the back of the theater — interrupts the opening scene of the play-within-a-play — to remind fading stage star Dotty Otley (Susan Cella) what the Nothing On Cockney-housekeeper character that she is playing is supposed to be doing in the scene. That is the first clue that there are two sets of characters in Noises Off. The first set is the actors and actresses, the director, the stage manager, and the assistant stage manager of the play-within-a-play. The second set of characters are the roles that they play onstage and backstage to make Nothing On a hit with provincial audiences.
From the first moment that Lloyd Dallas’ disembodied voice from the back of the theater booms into life, the audience becomes part of the play-within-a-play and the British farcical comedy starts spinning out of control. During a 2002 PBS interview about another project, Noises Off playwright Michael Frayn stated that he had used the same framework for the project as he had for Noises Off, and believes that in reviewing what characters say and do from several different perspectives “they come upon some sort of explanation of what was happening.”
Thus, it is through a series of mishaps, misunderstandings, and misadventures that the actors in the onstage play (Nothing On) are revealed as participants in much funnier off-stage conflicts. Frayn begins with the disastrous final dress rehearsal for Nothing On and follows its impact upon the real lives of the actors in the ensuing three acts of Noises Off: the first of which reveals the stage setting and introduces each actor, the director, and the stage crew. Through their discussion of the play and their roles within it, their actual personalities and connections with each other are revealed.
Dotty Otley (Susan Cella), the TV-watching housekeeper, is an often-confused veteran actress, who has obviously worked before with the tyrannical director Lloyd Dallas (Jeffrey Blair Cornell). His patience stretches thin when she is unable to remember the sequence of stage events, but he puts up with her until his tolerance for ineptitude is stretched even further with the introduction of the other cast members: Garry Lejeune (Matthew Schneck), a verbose actor who never says much but expects everyone to understand whatever he vaguely refers to; Brooke Ashton (Katie Paxton), the pretty ingénue who plays Schneck’s love interest in Nothing On and who appears as disinterested in the play and the people around her as a tree stump; Frederick Fellows (Scott Ripley), who plays the owner of the English manor that provides the setting for Nothing On — a man who is totally dominated by his dramatic wife, Belinda Blair (Andrea Cirie); and the drunk veteran actor who plays a small but important part as the burglar Selsdon Mowbray (Ray Dooley).
The actors are joined by the stage crew, including stage manager, Tim Allgood (Brandon Garegnani), who has to fix not only whatever is broken on stage but also is counted upon to keep track of the broken relationships backstage, and Poppy Norton-Taylor (Kelsey Didion), the assistant stage manager who has fallen under director Lloyd Dallas’ charismatic spell.
The bulk of the first act is spent introducing the two sets of characters, and setting up the premise of the play-within-a-play format. Conflicts are revealed, set problems are explored, the time sequence is built (the play is being rehearsed and the audience has been shown the final dress rehearsal), and the audience begins to understand the way the set will work. Eight doors lead to various parts of a two-story English country home, and the actors utilize them all.
When the curtain rises for Nothing On, housekeeper Dotty Otley is home alone, preparing to watch an afternoon soap before leaving for the day, when she is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Lejeune and Ashton. Lejeune plays a real estate broker using the country home to seduce Ashton, who is an employee of the British equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service. They, in turn, are surprised by the untimely return of the home’s owners: a pair of British tax exiles — played Fellows and Blair — who are pretending to live in Spain, to avoid the income tax. A sequence of scurrying to hide mistakes and the comical appearance and disappearance of the actors — as well as frenetic stage direction by Dallas — starts the story on a hysterical spin.
By Act Two, the play has been on the road for more than a fortnight and the actors are tiring of each other’s company. The PlayMakers set is on a turntable, which rotates to reveal the backside of the manor-house set seen in Act One. The audience now has a backstage view as the actors attempt to perform Nothing On while also working out their differences with each other — in silent pantomime. Because the set has been turned 180 degrees, the audience sees the actors performing Nothing On through the set’s windows and doors and can hear the lines being delivered onstage as they view the actors backstage as they argue, fight, pratfall, and desperately attempt to meet their onstage cues on time. During Act Two, the pace is frenetic, the characters well-formed, and their lines almost predictable.
Susan Cella as Otley and Matthew Schneck as Lejeune shine during Act Two, demonstrating their extensive experience and ability to play both to the audience, as well as to the other actors on stage. Cella’s facial expressions are priceless, almost Lucille Ball-like; and Schneck’s English accent is clipped, clear, and reminiscent of the many demanding Shakespearean roles he has portrayed. That background has obviously prepared him in many ways for the role which he plays in this raucous British comedy.
The PlayMakers set rotates, and Act Three brings us back to the play itself. Nothing On is nearing the end of its run, and the backstage quarrels and confusion have crept into the acting in such a way that things do desperately fall apart. Though the actors try to keep it together, one by one they relinquish their roles and become themselves onstage; and the audience is seduced into feverish laughter while trying to keep up with the one-liners and pratfalls the play and its actors now produce.
What is amazing about Noises Off is the pace at which the actors work and the timing involved to keep this play-within-a-play working at its breakneck pace. One must give a large amount of the credit to first-time PlayMakers Repertory Company guest director Michael Michetti, who ahs extensive experience in directing both Shakespearean works, as well as classic dramas on the West Coast. The recipient of two LA Stage Alliance Ovation Awards and five Los Angeles Drama Critics’ Circle Awards, he hits his stride with this challenging, fast-paced show.
Noises Off is the type of British farce that seems forced and silly at the beginning. One is determined not to get caught up in what appears to be a nonsensical group of people running about and throwing out lines that don’t appear to build a story; but by the end of the second act, the audience is caught up in the underlying stories and relationships between the members of the cast. And by Act Three, one is no longer wondering how the actors on the stage can remember their lines and their cues, because even though we logically know they’re only acting, we have become thoroughly caught up in the sheer fun of the play itself.
SECOND OPINION: April 10th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Jeffrey Rossman: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=5479; April 10th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2012/04/10/1990668/talented-cast-makes-the-most-of.html; and April 3rd Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel preview by Kendra Benner: http://www.dailytarheel.com/index.php/article/2012/04/playmakers_show_says_the_show_must_go_off. (Note: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the March 31st Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2012/03/michael-frayns-zany-backstage-comedy-noises-off-is-a-fast-and-furious-sex-comedy-that-sends-sardines-flying/.)
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents NOISES OFF at 7:30 p.m. April 10-13, 2 and 7:30 p.m. April 14, 2 p.m. April 15, 7:30 p.m. April 17-21, and 2 p.m. April 22 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.
BOX OFFICE: 919-962-PLAY (7529), firstname.lastname@example.org, or http://playmakersrep.org/tickets.
GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919-843-2311, email@example.com, or http://playmakersrep.org/tickets/groupsales.
STUDY GUIDE (compiled by the Utah Shakespeare Festival): http://www.bard.org/education/studyguides/Noises/noises.html.
BLOG (PlayMakers Page to Stage): http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.
NOTE 1: Tuesday is “Community Night” at PlayMakers Repertory Company, with special $10 general-admission tickets sold only at the door. For details, click http://playmakersrep.org/tickets/single.
NOTE 2: There will be FREE post-performance discussions with representatives of the show’s creative team, including designers, production staff, and/or actors on Wednesday, April 11th, and Sunday, April 15th.
NOTE 3: There will be a 10:30 a.m. $8.50-per-person student matinee on Thursday, April 12th; but it is SOLD OUT. For details, click http://www.playmakersrep.org/outreach/matinees.
NOTE 4: There will be an open-captioned performances at 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 14th (click http://playmakersrep.org/outreach/allaccess/opencaption for details).
NOTE 5: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh (http://www.artsaccessinc.org/) will audio describe the 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 17th, show, which will also be sign-language interpreted (click http://www.playmakersrep.org/outreach/allaccess for more information about these All Access Performances).
NOTE 6: The N.C. Psychoanalytic Foundation (http://www.ncpsychoanalysis.org/), the Lucy Daniels Foundation (http://www.ldf.org/home/), and the North Carolina Psychoanalytic Society (http://www.ncpsasoc.org/) will sponsor “Mindplay: A 50-minute Hour,” a FREE psychoanalytic discussion led by Roni Cohen, PhD, after the 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 21st, and 2 p.m. Sunday, April 22nd, performances.
The Play: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noises_Off (Wikipedia) and http://www.ibdb.com/show.php?ID=6602 (Internet Broadway Database).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
The Film: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0105017/ (Internet Movie Database).
The Playwright/Screenwriter: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Frayn (Wikipedia), http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=7726 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0292450/ (Internet Movie Database).
The Director: http://www.playmakersrep.org/performances/embed_artist.aspx?id=8149fef0-9b74-4df8-997f-099ab2862aa1 (PlayMakers Repertory Company).
Dawn Reno Langley is a Durham, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater reviews. She is also Dean of General Education and Developmental Studies at Piedmont Community College in Roxboro, where she oversees the theater program at the Kirby Cultural Arts Complex, and a member of the Person County Arts Council.
This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review. To start your FREE subscription to this newsletter, e-mail RobertM748@aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE TTR in the Subject: line. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Theater Review reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/.