Review: The Rep's Hilarious 'Noises Off' is Definitely On
“Noises Off,” the play currently playing at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, is a gritty, dark tale about a second-rate company of actors and their collective descent into madness. Or it’s the funniest play ever written. Actually, it’s both. Written by Michael Frayn, “Noises Off,” is a nonpareil masterpiece of comedy, as finely-tuned and intricate as the inner workings of a Swiss watch. The Rep’s production, under the direction of Ed Stern and featuring a truly fine cast, is more than a Swiss watch; it’s a top-of-the-line Rolex.
The play is a farce within a farce, told in three acts, during each of which, the play, “Nothing On,” is being performed on stage. Act One is the final rehearsal before the first performance; Act Two is a performance a couple of months into the run and seen from backstage (the entire set sits on a turntable and majestically turns around at the beginning of the act); and Act Three is one of the final performances.
The show is a send-up and commentary on every bedroom farce ever written (with a series of jabs aimed at the theater profession that are not so far from the truth), and it includes the prerequisite components of the genre; lots and lots of doors, quick entrances and exits, mistaken identities, misunderstandings, clandestine affairs, and in this case, plates of sardines. Farces are like the bubble gum of theater; fun to chew on but not much substance. “Noises Off,” however, takes the art form to such a high level that it transforms the silly genre into a singular, grand artistic achievement.
The first act—hilarious in its own right—is a model of writing efficiency. Everything the audience unwittingly learns about the play, the actors, the relationships, the set and so on will be important later. Namely though, we meet the curious cast of characters led by Dotty Otley (Dale Hodges), the beleaguered veteran actress playing the maid in “Nothing On,” and who is saddled with the disappearing (and reappearing) plates of sardines. Lloyd Dallas (Fletcher McTaggart) is the frustrated, sarcastic director who is having an affair with bombshell Brooke Ashton (Ruth Pferdehirt), who spends most of the play in her unmentionables.
Add to the mix actors John Sherer, Rebeca Miller, Andy Prosky, Victoria Adams-Zischke, Kevin Sebastian, and local favorite Joneal Joplin and you have an exceptional ensemble cast in a play that absolutely demands one. A Swiss watch will not work if one gear, one spring, or one sprocket malfunctions, and nothing will convince you of the “weak link” theory if not the second act of “Noises Off.”
The scene, witnessed from backstage, is controlled mayhem, more like a ballet than a play. Objects are passed from actor to actor—like a bottle of booze, a bouquet of flowers or an axe—with the precision of a Marine drill team, and there’s frantic running everywhere, including up and down rudimentary stair cases. It is—in real life—dangerous, and the only thing lacking on opening night was the actors were still being cautious and a little too careful. It’s hard to blame them. Dorothy Loudin, who first played the role of Dotty on Broadway (which this reviewer saw), remarked in an interview at the time that she had not only lost 25 pounds, but got “two bruised ribs, a trachea infection, a sprained ankle and two broken toes. And that was just during rehearsals.” The Rep actors probably just needed a couple of more performances under their belt.
Nevertheless, “Noises Off” is a fantastically satisfying night of theater that induces such uncontrolled, deep-from-the-belly laughter that the next day you’ll feel like you did a hundred sit-ups. Elizabeth Covey’s great costumes add to the fun and were equaled by Rusty Wandall’s sound and Peter E. Sargent’s lights.
Also, make it a point to read the “fake” program notes featuring actor bios and an essay on farce; they’re hysterical. There is something deeply human and rejuvenative about sitting with a large group of people and laughing your butt off. “Noises Off” is your chance.
“Noises Off” continues at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis though April 13. For more information, visit The Rep website.