|Laura Jordan, Corey Brill, Rebecca Gibel,and Brad Heberlee in Noises Off
at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Photo by Bill Brymer.
By Michael Frayn
Directed by Meredith McDonough
Review by Keith Waits
Copyright 2013 by Keith Waits, all rights reserved.
In the curtain speech delivered with Managing Director Jennifer Bielstein, Artistic Director Les Waters described Noises Off as “a gift” offered to audiences as the opening salvo in a celebratory 50th Anniversary season. A raucous, crowd-pleasing backstage farce satirizing theatrical archetypes, the choice is clearly designed to start this milestone season off with a bang: a safe but satisfying pick.
The script is an immaculately designed construction demanding razor-sharp timing for its utmost impact. It follows the first act of a production of a new play called Nothing On: first in dress rehearsal during the first act, where we view the action from the vantage point of the audience and the eccentricities and ineptitude of the cast are introduced; then a month into the tour, but this time the set has turned so that we are backstage for the hijinks that result when the petty jealousies and rivalries are spilling out in sometimes violent fashion; and then, finally, a third act that is the very last performance – a calamitous affair that betrays the deterioration of skill and artistry, if not the dogged professionalism that is the survival lifeline for all involved..
Director Meredith McDonough has cast the play faultlessly, with an ensemble that seems comfortable with the interplay of verbal and physical humor the script requires; and the audience in attendance with this reviewer received the performance with grateful enthusiasm. Yet it must be said that Noises Off is not all that it could be. The production earns its laughs through hard work and skill, but there were several moments when the seams showed. The daring second act turns into a near-silent pantomime of epic slapstick as cast members engage in near-combat with an axe that is exchanged so often it becomes nearly impossible to keep track. The sequence ranks as one of the most complex pieces of scripted physical comedy ever imagined, and it is well-choreographed here by Fight Director Drew Fracher. Yet it never achieves the giddy danger that it demands, with action that retains the element of caution of a late rehearsal. Other bits of business, such as a climactic fall down the stairs, also display the careful set-up and movement cues that ensure the actors safety. The fall earned an appreciative round of applause when it ought to have provoked gasps of astonishment.
Which is to say the whole enterprise is just shy of being fully realized. So much hard work is evident, and all of it on the right track, that it pains one to realize it, and another week in performance may be just the remedy. But this Noises Offwasn’t quite there yet.
Still, there are pleasures to savor, particularly among the cast. Corey Brill masterfully captured the bluster of the leading man, Garry Lejeune, who blithely refuses to finish any sentence in satisfactory fashion. Jeremy Lawrence delightfully stole most of his scenes as the drunken bit player Selsdon Mowbray; while Nathan Keepers was an individual presence as the assistant stage manager/understudy, and dexterously managed a nice bit of business erasing the intended second intermission while the turntable stage changed the scene. Dori Legg was also an added treat as Dotty Otley, a character whose name tells all; and not one of the players seemed to take a wrong step in their choices.
The set for Noises Off is usually a point of discussion, since it must be built to rotate between each act, and Daniel Zimmerman delivers the goods. Filled with details that reflect the mismatched elements of haphazard design one might expect in such a shaky theatrical offering, it is as important as any character. Kristopher Castle’s costumes were unfussy in evoking character and period without ostentation, and the quality of lighting and sound design were exemplary.
If this production just misses greatness, perhaps we can settle for a solid comedy that leaves us feeling happy to have spent another evening in the theatre. A Noises Offthat is functioning at 95 percent capacity may still be more entertaining than lesser plays. It also proves the critics lament that shows tend to grow and achieve more as they are performed, but the reviews must, by necessity, come at the beginning of a run, not the end, when perhaps that greatness may have come to be realized. This production still has a chance to get where it strives to be.
September 3 – 22, 2013
Actors Theatre of Louisville
Pamela Brown Auditorium
316 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202