Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Is NOISES OFF the Funniest Play Ever? Judge for Yourself at ISU's CPA

Noises Off, the only play I know that is both an on-stage and off-stage farce, is coming to Illinois State University's Center for the Performing Arts, opening November 2 with a 7:30 pm performance.

I'm not sure -- it's hard to quantify this sort of thing -- but Noises Off may be the funniest play I've ever seen. Because it's about theatre and the crazy interaction between and among theatre people, you may think it's too big an in-joke for the general public. But the first time I saw it, back in the 80s at what was then called the St. Paul Actors Theatre, I went with a bunch of lawyers, and they were all laughing so hard I thought we might need assistance getting out of there.

It's hilarious for the audience, but a pretty tough job for the people that work on it, since the timing of the jokes -- both the physical and verbal hijinks -- has to be perfect, and all the things that go wrong while this hapless company is supposedly performing the farce-within-the-farce, Nothing On, are a sticky wicket to get right. You know the cliche -- dying is easy, but comedy is hard. Noises Off is really, really funny, making it really, really hard. 

On the surface, Noises Off is about a British theatre company taking their terrible sex comedy, Nothing On, on the road. The leading lady is Dottie Otley, who once had some fame on TV, but has faded a bit. Her boyfriend, Garry Lejeune, is also in the company, along with Freddie and Belinda, a pair of middle-aged actors, Selsdon Mowbray, an older actor who has seen better days, and Brooke, a blonde bimbo who is only there because she's involved with the director, Lloyd Dallas. The crew off two includes overworked Tim, who hasn't slept in ages and keeps trying to fix things as they go wrong, and Poppy, who is also "dating" Lloyd, creating all kinds of complications as he tries to juggle his various romantic and theatrical obligations. You can see some of the gags in Noises Off represented on ISU's poster, above, with sardines, a fire ax and a series of flowers among them.

The first act shows us a very messy rehearsal of Nothing On, followed by the backstage goings-on during a performance a bit down the road in Act II, and the front of the set again in Act III, after everything has blown up completely. 

Michael Frayn's script is genius, no two ways about it. There was a movie version in 1992, but it's not nearly as good, mostly because Noises Off is tied so closely to what you can do on stage.

For ISU, Christopher Dea directs an updated version of the script, with a cast that includes Ashlyn Hughes as Dottie, Kyle McClevey as Lloyd, Nico Tangorra as Garry, Kelsey Bunner as Brooke, Lizzy Haberstroh as Poppy, Matt Hallahan as Freddie, Hannah Brown as Belinda, Nicholas Spindler as Tim, and Joseph Faifer as Selsdon.

Click here for more information on ISU's production of Noises Off including how to get tickets. Performances run November 2-3 and 7-10 at 7:30 pm, with a Sunday matinee on November 4 scheduled for 2 pm.


  1. Of course I totally concur with finding it the funniest play of our time. I find myself recalling all the times I've seen it.

    Original Broadway production, with Dorothy Loudon, Brian Murray, Linda Thorson, Paxton Whitehead, Victor Garber (though I got his understudy), and Amy Wright. Deborah Rush got a Tony for playing Brooke.

    I have a feeling I may have seen a community theater production that has totally faded from memory. I've also caught 2 student productions here: one with undergrads, directed by one of my music students who ingeniously got around the need for a second story to the set and got some very good performances out of his cast. Better, in one or two cases, than the "professional-level" cast of our REP company put on a year ago. Still, they were overall more polished and had the benefit of the full design.

    The Bway revival wasn't quite a match for the first; Patti LuPone wasn't right as Dotty (come to think of it I've never seen the sort of beloved-old-motherly-star actress in the part that it obviously calls for; the original, Patricia Routledge, must have been ideal). But there were some wonderful elements: Peter Gallagher (he crawled across my knees in my front-row seat as he made his way to the stage), Richard Easton, Edward Hibbert, Faith Prince, and a delightful newcomer named T.R. Knight as Tim. And Katie Finneran won a Tony as Brooke (do we sense a trend?).

    Yes, the movie ultimately doesn't work, but I can't write it off completely. Despite the compromises and the mere fact that it is a movie, it does preserve the play intact (I don't think a line was cut), Peter Bogdanovich tried his best to use long takes and wide angles to keep the stage picture and rhythm, and there are some good performances by able farceurs -- I mean, if you want someone to tumble down a flight of stairs, John Ritter is your man.

    I wish I could come see this production!

  2. Completely aside from NOISES OFF, I'm very glad to hear from you in the midst of the hurricane (or whatever it is now). Glad to hear you have internet and power and all that good stuff.

    My first NOISES OFF was definitely the St. Paul Actors Theatre one. The second was the one I did props for in Champaign at the Station Theatre, where a scenic design wizard named David Harwell managed to squish a whole set (including stairs for Garry to tumble down) into their tiny black box space. It was amazing.

    Since then, I've seen several, with varying degrees of success. I get fussy about things like putting Freddie in a paisley sheet or other silliness that flies in the face of the script. I didn't see either of the Broadway productions, but the movie was a miss for me, mostly because it IS a movie. It also loses the Briticisms. But Carol Burnett is spot on as Dotty, that's for sure. And I just realized that both Christopher Reeve and John Ritter are in it, in the Gone Too Soon category, with Denholm Elliott probably also in that group. (A moment of silence.)

    I have high hopes for this one. It's in the CPA, which is ISU's biggest space. There's a picture of the set on this page: https://www.facebook.com/events/286104224833894/ Not sure about the yellow. But lots of doors, of course!