What a farce.
There are few stage comedies more difficult to produce than Michael Frayn’s justly famous farce about a failed theatre production, Noises Off. So considerable credit is due to Chicago’s Windy City Playhouse and director Scott Weinstein for taking on the challenge of mounting this very silly but technically demanding work comprising a play within a play; nine actors, almost all of whom perform dual roles; intricately choreographed slapstick; and a second act that, in this production, requires the audience to literally walk backstage and view the action from behind the set.
If this production, which opened on Wednesday, January 16 at Windy City’s Irving Park venue, is not fully satisfying, some of the blame rests with Frayn himself. The English playwright and novelist, who also wrote the considerably more serious Copenhagen, was inspired to write Noises Off by watching a production of his own first play, itself a farce. Noises Off is based on two clever conceits: The first is the notion that a slapstick comedy – the play within the play — performed by a troupe of incompetent and neurotic actors would be funnier than one performed competently (the current Broadway hit, The Play That Goes Wrong, seems to have hit upon the same concept). And the second is that allowing the audience to see these ham-handed English actors bicker backstage about their various petty jealousies and insecurities and then scramble frantically to recapture their dignity and professionalism onstage would heighten the humor and pathos.
The problem, however, is that the play these actors are supposedly attempting to perform, called “Nothing On,” is seen only in brief snatches — first in tech rehearsal, then at its opening, and then after it has been on the road for far too long — and what we see of this play is not merely farcical, but nonsensical. Even the creaky English sex farces of the 60s that Frayn no doubt was influenced by had some sort of plot; “Nothing On” does not. (There is a lot of nonsense, some amusing, some just dumb, about a plate of sardines.) As a result, when things go wrong onstage, it is not always evident what difference this would have made to an already-baffled audience in the provincial English towns where “Nothing On” was supposedly performed.
The manner in which the real-life actors in Windy City’s production have been directed to play their dual roles also adds to the sense of flatness. In the mostly laugh-free first act especially, as they bumble their way through a disastrous midnight tech rehearsal, the distinction they draw between themselves as actors and as the characters they are playing is not as sharp as it should be, matters not helped by their sometimes muffled enunciation. As a result, we don’t get a strong enough sense of who these actors are as human beings, and so when their performances, and lives, begin to fall apart, the real-life audience doesn’t have enough reason to care.
The second act, when the Windy City audience moves backstage – the reverse view of the “Nothing On” set is a beautifully executed idea by scenic designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec and his colleagues — is a considerable improvement, precisely because we get to know the actors’ real lives better. The sexual and romantic misunderstandings, professional insecurities, unplanned pregnancies and alcoholism we see go a long way towards explaining why these actors, both onstage and off, are careening off of each other so wildly and makes the slapstick and the sight gags both funnier and far more touching. The same applies to the third act, when we see the actors, in one of their final performances, barely hanging on to their sanity.
The real-life actors playing this troupe of losers deliver energetic performances. Of particular note is Amy J. Carle, who plays the befuddled actress Dotty Otley with a curious, vulnerable dignity that makes us pull for her as she struggles to the finish line of the doomed production that Frayn has conjured for us. Rochelle Therien also sparkles as a stereotypical sexpot actress named Brooke Ashton who is zealously devoted to reciting her lines no matter how dire the chaos swirling around her becomes.
The Windy City production team does a first-rate job of coordinating all of the idiocy; it’s a lot harder than it looks for things to go wrong in exactly the right way. When a curtain goes up only partially, and then collapses on the actors, it’s a disaster in the fictional world conjured by Frayn, but a triumph of timing by the Windy City team. The ramshackle backstage set is an ingenious advancement over earlier, less-immersive productions of Noises Off, in which the set rotated on a turntable to reveal the back of the theatre, and the audience stayed where it was. And making something fall to pieces precisely on cue is an art, as is staggering from a blow to the head or tumbling down a set of stairs in a way that looks real, though the latter is not fully realized by every actor in Noises Off.
Despite the shortcomings of Frayn’s script, it is nonetheless an amazing feat of theatrical engineering, and a frequently hilarious commentary on the contingent and precarious nature of live theatre. Windy City Playhouse is commended for taking it on and, especially after a rough first act, making it its own.