It is said that theater is the result of a series of happy accidents magically culminating in a successful show. While that criminally understates the efforts of a staggering number of people—most of whom never even get the satisfaction of taking a bow for all their work—there is some truth to it. Any show can be tanked if the simply astonishing number of moving parts does not all line up just right. Throw in Murphy’s Law, “Anything can go wrong will,” and you see exactly how precarious a construction theater truly is.
This brings us (exactly how you will see later on), to the Guthrie Theater’s production of Noises Off, which opened this past weekend. Written in the early ’80s by London-born Michael Frayn, the play is helmed here by Meredith McDonough in her directorial debut for the Guthrie. According to Frayn, his inspiration came while he was watching a rehearsal for another play he’d written, when he realized the activities occurring off the stage were more engaging than those on it.
Thus, Noises Off, in which the play ostensibly being performed is, in a sense, the true stage. Most of the performers play double (or even triple) roles as actors and as a characters in Nothing On—a period sex farce full of people running in and out of doors, scantily clad actresses, and men’s trousers falling down at unexpected moments. Behind the scenes of Nothing On, however, is plenty of comedy as relationships between the actors and the stage crew are formed, fray, and founder under the pressure of the show grinding onward.
The play-within-a-play follows the misadventures of Roger Tramplemain (Garry Lejeune, played with convincing brashness by Johnny Wu) and Vicki (ingenue Brooke Ashton, played by Kate Loprest) as the two attempt a lover’s meeting in the house of tax evader Philip Brent (Frederick Fellowes, played by Remy Auberjonois) and his wife, Flavia Brent (Belinda Blair, played by Laura Jordan). Their afternoon delight is interrupted by the stealthy return to the house of Philip and Flavia, a house-hunting sheikh (also Auberjonois), and the unexpected presence of their housekeeper, Mrs. Clackett (Dotty Otley in Noises Off, played by Sally Wingert). It turns out that Vicki is an employee of Inland Revenue (England’s equivalent of the IRS) who coincidentally is carrying documents about the Brents’ tax evasion. And, to make the afternoon more fraught, a burglar (Selsdon Mowbray, played by Raye Birk) breaks and enters and ultimately reveals himself to be Vicki’s long-lost father. (Since Vicki has spent most of the afternoon in her underwear running in and out of various bedrooms, and her father is a criminal, I’m not sure how well that reunion is going to go, but that is left to our imagination.)
With me so far? Right, then.
Now, in Noises Off, Nathan Keepers plays Lloyd Dallas, the director of Nothing On. He is aided by his assistant stage manager (and secret girlfriend), Poppy Norton-Taylor (Kimberly Chatterjee), and sleep-deprived stage manager-slash-set-construction-slash-understudy, Tim Allgood (JuCoby Johnson). Chatterjee’s Poppy is instantly recognizable to anyone who has worked in theater as the one who is everywhere doing every task at once—and who, somehow, only speeds up as the opening night approaches. Johnson is entirely sympathetic as the overworked jack-of-all-trades, at one point fixing a recalcitrant set door, later stepping in to understudy any of the cast, and occasionally falling asleep on set as the previous sleepless week catches up to him. However, Lloyd is even busier than might be expected, as he is also seeing Brooke Ashton (Loprest).
At the same time as Roger (Garry, Wu) is trying to get off with Vicki (Brooke, Loprest), in Noises Off Garry is seeing Dotty (Wingert), a somewhat past-her-prime actress with a world-weariness that grows into full-fledged bitter cynicism by Act 3. Belinda Blair (Jordan) keeps the rest of the cast appraised of the status of these various relationships. In Act 1, Blair is the glue that holds the cast together, helping Fellowes (Auberjonois) find his motivations, prompting the forgetful tippler Selsdon Mowbray (Birk) with his lines, and generally propelling the show forward. However, as she, too, becomes involved with Garry, she becomes more vindictive, especially toward Dotty—who has no love for her, either, as things progress. Toss in some complications between Lloyd and Poppy and Brooke, and things become a right old mess.
If this sounds like a bit much to keep track of, the program includes a relationship and identity chart. No, that is not a joke.
The actors are top-notch, as is to be expected from the Guthrie. Each actor carries their double and triple roles with conviction, and all levels of the play are full of hilarity. Of particular note: Wu’s seamless transitions between multiple British accents, and Loprest’s Brooke as Vicki, who runs her stylized acting on rails. No matter what goes on around her, she is unable or unwilling to improvise: she knows her lines and marks, and by god she’s going to hit them no matter what else has gone wrong.
There are a couple of false notes, however. With Act 1 all about the opening of Nothing On set to happen in a scant few hours, Keeper’s director Lloyd tends toward sudden anger and low-energy resignation rather than the deadline-induced frantic panic one might expect. And overall there seems to be the air you tend to get when British comedies are portrayed for an American audience. Delivery is slowed from the original electric crackle of wit, and the actions become more broad even than one might expect from a farce.
However—and this is a big however—none of that actually matters. It suffices for the action that these dynamics exist, and onward we go to explore the consequences in the rollicking Act 2. Through a wonderfully clever bit of stagecraft, the entire house façade has been designed to rotate in three sections to give us the backstage view. Hats off to scenic designer Kate Sutton-Johnson—who must have been quite upset during November 3’s performance when the turntables that were supposed to spin the façade didn’t work. (For a show that is all about everything that can go wrong in a production, this was a delicious irony.) This forced the cast and crew, unfortunately, to skip Act 2 entirely, with Nathan Keepers providing a summarized version as a bridge to Act 3. Luckily, on my second viewing on November 6, there were no problems, and Act 2 proceeded normally.
To wit, Nothing On has opened (more or less successfully, we gather) and is touring. With Lloyd off to another production, the cast begins to trip over the fractures first seen in the previous act. Dotty and Frederick spend an evening together, triggering a jealous rage in Garry. Lloyd returns to smooth things over with Brooke, but Poppy has some news for him as well. Selsdon’s drinking worsens, Tim presumably hasn’t been able to catch up on his sleep, and Belinda is at her wits end trying to keep everyone together so that the show can go on.
This is done nearly entirely silently: as the actors enter and exit the “stage,” everything backstage gets crazier and crazier. Tim accidentally gives the flowers destined for Brooke to Poppy, Selsdon pursues a whiskey bottle, Belinda attempts to keep Garry from fighting with Frederick, Dotty becomes unjustifiably jealous of Belinda and goes after her with an axe, Frederick is flummoxed by all the violence—and all of this goes on silently and in mime between the time the actors appear on “stage” for their putative performance. Eventually, the emotions become too much and things start spilling over into the front of house as well. The act is hands-down hilarious, and the entire cast puts on the physical comedy magnificently.
Onward to Act 3, in which the stage turns around again (magic!) and the last performance of Nothing On begins with actors who are clearly sick to death of both the show and each other. Each actor is at their most believable in this act; Dotty seems wholly disconnected from events both in the play and backstage, muttering to herself in an amusing meta commentary. Everything goes wrong as the actors sabotage each other while gamely attempting to keep the show going, harder and harder though that might be. Though it does feel at the very end that not only have the “actors” given up at putting on a coherent show, so too did Frayn, and the show ends with any discordant notes drowned in the symphony of silliness. Indeed, the Guthrie itself embraced the fun: the program not only included a fictional advertisement for Nothing On, but an article in which the real-life cast and crew recall their funniest theatrical mishaps. (They’ve all got another to add to the list, now.)
While you may not get as meta a show as the first one I watched, there is no doubt that Noises Off is one of the most laugh-out-loud plays imaginable, and Meredith McDonough, the actors, and the Guthrie certainly do it justice. Do yourself a favor and go see it as soon as you can.
Noises Off is at the Guthrie Theater now through December 16, 2018.