“Noises Off” is what every show at the Utah Shakespearean Festival should be: well-acted, impeccably timed, brilliantly staged and (as is appropriate with the comedies) screamingly funny.
The play opens at the final dress rehearsal of “Nothing On,” a generic farce full of word play, slamming doors and mistaken identities. Sarcastic director Lloyd Dallas (A. Bryan Humphrey) sits in the audience, slowly burning over the fact that the show opens tomorrow, yet is far from ready.
Dotty (Libby George) can’t remember her stage directions. Garry (David Ivers) is a fatuous actor-moron who knows his lines well but can’t express himself in real life. His co-star, the air-headed Brooke (Gwyn Fawcett), is the worst actress alive and spends all her non-acting moments stretching or doing breathing exercises, and occasionally looking for her lost contact lens, which pops out often. Freddie (Henson Keys) doesn’t understand most of the play and gets a nosebleed at the first sign of violence; Belinda (Fredi Olster) is more interested in sharing gossip about the cast than performing; and Selsdon (Charles Metten) is a washed-up old drunk who turns up missing as often as Brooke’s contact lens.
The hour-long first act of “Noises Off” consists of the the first act of “Nothing On,” which should only take about 30 minutes. It’s the constant starting and stopping that stretches it out, and it’s during the down time that we learn of Garry and Dotty’s affair — even though she’s old enough to be his mother — as well as the dallying between Lloyd and Brooke, as well as between Lloyd and stage manager Poppy (Beth Guest).
All of it is ingeniously funny. The dry British wit of the flustered director, combined with the outlandishness of the actors, makes for some fine moments. But at the same time, we’re also actually seeing, in pieces, “Nothing On,” which itself is rather funny, in a generic, stupid way.
Act II of “Noises Off” is backstage after the show’s been going a month. We’ve learned the play from watching that disastrous rehearsal; now we hear and occasionally see the actors out on stage performing it, while mayhem reigns backstage. Dotty and Garry have had a fight and are trying to kill each other; Lloyd is trying to make up with both Brooke and Poppy; people are trying to keep bottles away from Selsdon — and everyone’s still making their entrances and exits, too.
This second act is nothing short of brilliant, a farce about the staging of a farce in which the actors are as addled as the characters they play. If anything, it’s occasionally TOO chaotic, with so much going on that you’re not sure where you’re supposed to be looking.
The third act lets up a little in the pacing, putting us again out in the audience, this time two months later, when the show’s a complete wreck. Dotty has completely given up, speaking directly to the audience and changing all her lines and blocking. Garry is trying to improvise his lines to explain the various unscripted occurrences, but Brooke refuses to say anything other than what’s in the script, even when it no longer makes sense. Others are trying desperately to keep things on track. Poppy is pregnant.
At its high points, “Noises Off” is a frenzy of inspired insanity, the laughs coming so fast you can hardly keep up with them. The show runs steadily and evenly, with each performer throwing himself with full vigor into the senseless goings-on.