BWW Reviews: All Aboard the Pain Train in Pittsburgh Public's NOISES OFF
Farce traditionally leaves audiences laughing. Plot dominates over characterization. Doors slam, lovers hide, people miss each other by seconds, misunderstandings arise, slapstick ensues, happy ending.
Then there's Noises Off.
If you put a gun to my head, I'm not sure I would describe Michael Frayn's play as a traditional farce at all. Rather, it's something of a farcical tragedy, or a very funny tragicomedy. This is serious cringe comedy: things start bad and get worse. Nothing in the show remotely resembles a happy ending. Instead, just when you think you've hit rock bottom, someone throws down a shovel. There's no light at the end of the tunnel... just more rock bottom, and more shovels.
The play, artfully directed with a great eye for detail by Broadway vet Don Stephenson, deals with a harried director and his cast of inept actors and has-beens, staging a British tour of the (fictional) farce Nothing On. With limited rehearsal time, a too-small stage crew, meager talent and nowhere near enough time, it looks like the show will not go on... but on it goes with the premiere performance in Act 2, and a performance later in the run in Act 3. Thanks to Michael Schweikardt's artful revolving set, audiences get to see not only the chaos onstage, but the madness backstage, as love triangles blossom and wilt, lives fall apart, and actors devolve into borderline psychotics.
In the lead role, Michael MacCauley plays frazzled director Lloyd Dallas as a man forever teetering on the brink of impotent rage. His voice and presence, complete with an arch Londoner's accent, recalls Jack Davenport's similarly put-upon and philandering director character in the television program SMASH. His co-stars present an interesting critical dilemma: how does one judge the performance of (theoretically) good actors playing (decidedly) bad actors? Thankfully, their performances are entertaining across the board, and a quick peek at the program revealed that these are, indeed, seasoned performers, not the hacks they play onstage. Standing out in the cast are Noah Plomgren as the woefully inarticulate leading man Gary LeJeune, and Karen Baum as stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor, who somehow winds up taking the brunt of the chaos that descends squarely on her at every performance. Additionally, Laura Woyasz provides consistent laughs as Brooke Ashton, a cheesecake model turned ingenue whose idea of acting is "hit your cues and say your lines" in the bluntest fashion possible.
The unsung hero of the tragicomedy, however, is Preston Dyar, playing the only professional, competent member of the acting company. As Frederick Fellowes, he struggles along, somewhat perplexed by Nothing On's illogical and contrived script. When he finds himself, through no fault of his own, in the center of the maelstrom in Act 2 and Act 3, he bravely tries to soldier on and give his best possible performance, but is dragged down, assaulted and humiliated again and again, often simply by accident. With him every step of the way is Scott Cote as Tim Allgood, technical assistant and understudy to the production's entire cast. Cote plays the somewhat overworked Allgood with a resigned good humor that somehow never wears thin even though the demands heaped upon him grow increasingly impossible to fufill.
If there is a weak point in the company, it lies perhaps with the role of Selsdon Mowbray, played amiably enough by Ralph Redpath. The senile, alcoholic theatre veteran provides much of the evening's chaos, but thanks to his role in the plot, he is funnier in his absence than his presence. Offstage and invisible, Mowbray is a threat to the production's very existence. When he actually appears, his doddering presence is no match for the danger his disappearances present. Similarly, Garrett Long as Belinda Blair plays the straight woman of the evening, making her less-than-flashy part sometimes disappear in the wild proceedings around her.
The technical design shines in its physical manifestations, with Schweikardt's set standing out for its ingenious and detailed rotating stage. Unfortunately, Zach Moore's sound design for the show relies very heavily on manic boogie-woogie, all of which sounds rather the same. When arriving at the theatre, this provided a charming soundscape, but after half an hour in the house and then a fifteen minute intermission, the sound ran together and came across as rather bland.
If you have an appetite for farce, but hate the contrived cliches of the genre, Noises Off is absolutely the show for you. On the other hand, if cringe comedy makes you uncomfortable and watching Michael Scott's bunglings on The Office leaves you squirming, you may want to stay away and save yourself the anxiety. Those whose funny bone includes a little touch of masochism, however, would do well to come see this production, for the most enjoyably painful two hours they can anticipate this year.