Review of Noises Off

Review of Noises Off-attachment0

First with What the Butler Saw at N.C. Stage, and now Noises Off down the street at Asheville Community Theatre, one begins to wonder if late 20th Century British farces are coming back into vogue. Perhaps they have something profound and pertinent to say to us amidst the confusions of post-9/11 America. Perhaps; but heck if I can figure out what it is.

Fortunately, a well-written and well-performed British farce can be pretty entertaining stuff. Audiences are typically treated to the spectacle of girls in their underwear scampering around, middle-aged men scampering after them with their trousers either down around their ankles or nowhere at all, somebody getting repeatedly knocked in the head, and enough frantic entrances and exits to pound a plywood set to smithereens.

Michael Frayn’s Noises Off is no exception, though he takes it one step further by giving us a farce-within-a-farce. Act 1 is the final dress rehearsal for the (fictional) British farce Nothing On, by one “Robin Housemonger.” The cast, under the frazzled direction of “Lloyd Dallas” (played with furious despair by Clete Fugate), is as befuddled as they are talentless. Act 2 takes us backstage during a performance of Nothing On — for which the entire set (ingeniously designed by ACT veteran Jack Lindsay) has to be rotated 180° on the stage — when the hapless cast is at each other’s throats, or else slaking their own from a bottle of scotch, between entrances. Act 3 then brings the set around front again as we witness the same bit of Nothing On, only this time we are ourselves the “audience” at what is supposed to be the worst performance of all time.

The play is smart, and this production is good fun. But you see the challenge: how does one play a character well who is himself playing a character but doing it badly? Or what’s the difference between terrible acting and acting terrible? It’s a bit like writing a story about boredom: should the story itself be boring? Certainly not. In fact, what’s required here is pretty sophisticated, and I don’t envy director Josh Batenhorst the challenges he faced with Noises Off. The image comes to mind of playing chess while juggling champagne glasses on a Tilt-A-Whirl. By the end, there are a few broken glasses, and I’m not sure what happened to a couple of bishops, but it’s been a ride.

The Sunday matinee audience when I saw the show loved it, and they rewarded the cast with a standing ovation. If I myself wasn’t entirely swept up in the enthusiasm, it was largely because the play never succeeded in making me give much of a hoot about the characters, these hapless actors in the play-within-the-play. Unfortunately, some important plot points seem to have been lost in the shuffle of shenanigans, and when things boil over in Act 2, it’s hard to tell what all the fuss is about. The consequence is a more or less constant hubbub — some of which is funny in the way a guy slipping on a banana peel is funny — but without a clear sense of what’s at stake.

But I’ll be the first to admit that I may be asking too much — or the wrong thing — of Noises Off. A comparison with Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw is actually instructive here. While Frayn, with his play-within-the-play, has certainly trumped Orton for crafty sophistication, he’s made no attempt at what gave the earlier play (and what gives many farces) a lasting bite: satire. Orton’s fun is wicked fun. Frayn’s is just fun.

There can be no doubt of the show’s charms as entertainment — chief among which, for me, are the moments of physical comedy. And among the cast, David Ostergaard stands out as the earnest and hilariously inarticulate actor “Garry LeJeune.” While there are others in the cast who hit the British dialect more consistently than Ostergaard, none can match him for sheer exuberance and comic timing. He and Cary Nichols, who also impresses as “Dotty Otley,” seem most at home with this sort of material, though no one is seriously miscast. During the pandemonium of Act 2, they all work together with remarkable success.

In short, the show makes no pretense at being anything other than “light fare.” But light doesn’t mean easy, and Batenhorst and his team deserve praise for pulling it off as well as they do. 

Noises Off, by Michael Frayn. Presented by Asheville Community Theatre. Directed by Josh Batenhorst. Set Design by Jack Lindsey. Lighting Design by Jay Harry. Costume Design by Deborah Austin. Prop Design by Ann Silkie. Stage Manager: Lindsey Cashion. Featuring: Jeff Catanese, Sara Fields, Clete Fugate, Kevin Kibby, Ryan Madden, Carin Metzger, Cary Nichols, David Ostergaard, Laura Roop. Production runs through July 18, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets: $22/$19/$12. ACT is located on E. Walnut Street in downtown Asheville, NC. For tickets: 828-254-1320 or visit www.ashevilletheatre.org.

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3 thoughts on “Review of Noises Off

  1. Dramaturg

    ” . . .I’ll be the first to admit that I may be asking too much — or the wrong thing — of Noises Off. A comparison with Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw is actually instructive here. While Frayn, with his play-within-the-play, has certainly trumped Orton for crafty sophistication, he’s made no attempt at what gave the earlier play (and what gives many farces) a lasting bite: satire. Orton’s fun is wicked fun. Frayn’s is just fun. . . ”

    Might have to disagree with critic Cruthfield on this one. Isn’t Frayn satirizing the foibles, egos, self-importance and weaknesses of actors and theatre folk in general, much as Shakespeare did with the “rude mechanicals” in “Midsummer Night’s Dream?” Making fun of theatre people seems to be a tradition in the theatre, from “The Frogs” onward. “Room Service?” “The Torchbearers?” “Kiss Me Kate?” Stoppard’s “Rough Crossing?”

    And even the notoriously cranky John Simon (cranky as Hanke and even crankier) finds depths and subtleties in “Noises Off”: “The way the ludicrous theatricality of shoddy lives and the shoddy ludicrousness of lifeless theater interpenetrate so that all boundaries yield to universal havoc – universal comic havoc – is endless funny and even a trifle melancholy. Thus the actors, both on and off, exhibit the full spectrum of human gullibility, folly, incompetence, and imbecility, and yet, absurdly muddle through. . . And in this life as in this theater, we are never sure which is onstage and which backstage, which is presumably playacting and which putative reality.”

  2. John Crutchfield

    Thanks, Dramaturg, for this astute rejoinder. Certainly you (and Mr. Simon) are correct in saying that the play has its fun at the expense of theatre folk. And not only hilariously but accurately so, at least in my experience. But at the risk of sounding pedantic, I’m not sure meta-theatrical satire of this kind has the same teeth as satire directed at some actual state of affairs or set of beliefs in the “real world.” A play satirizing the British farce that is at the same time itself a British farce risks boiling off into pure irony: it’s all just fun, games, and inside jokes. I wouldn’t want to debate the point with you–it’s all academic, as they say. Let’s just call it a difference of taste. In any event, as I hope my review makes clear, this production is a respectable interpretation of a much-celebrated play–and worth seeing.

  3. Josh Batenhorst

    Thanks for the review, John! I really appreciate your critical response and look forward to the Mtn. Xpress theatre blog opinions on every show.

    Regarding: “.. British farces are coming back into vogue. Perhaps they have something profound and pertinent to say to us amidst the confusions of post-9/11 America. Perhaps; but heck if I can figure out what it is.”

    I think there is an element of which folks will always be tickled by smart, funny writing, even if that writing doesn’t necessarily say anything “important.” The fact that this script is still delighting audiences 30 years after its initial production speaks volumes to the quality of the text. Personally, I found lots of gems in this piece, albeit many of them were in the manner of being “inside jokes for theatre folks.” These nuggets of wisdom may not be heady material, but they have a place in our theatre.

    Some examples:

    1.) Under our trousers, we are all (in the words of the playwright) “just ordinary sex maniacs.”

    2.) Physical comedy is, in my opinion, the most universally appreciated stage craft. While not everyone appreciates the poetry of a Walt Whitman, I’m sure even Walt appreciated the well-timed pie in the face.

    3.) (and ‘they always come in threes’) Trust the script. Our goal with this production was not to alter the text, but to do what it asked us to do. I have a faint hope that the issues with the missing plot points was something that is either inherent in the script or perhaps the show was a missing a keen edge during the matinee, but I fear that it may be lack of directorial focus in important parts of the drama.

    That said, my final response is “C’est la vie!” I am very proud of this show and its cast, crew and management. I hope that more folks will come out to see it in its last weekend. Again, thanks for reviewing the show and thanks for bringing your considerate response to Asheville’s theatre.

    Best Wishes!

    Josh Batenhorst
    Director
    NOISES OFF

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