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BWW Reviews: All the Laughs You Could Ever Want Are in NOISES OFF at Third Rail

Here's the deal: You don't have to like my reviews, you don't have to approve of my writing style, and you don't even have to go to all the shows I recommend. But if you don't like Noises Off, we can't be friends. Simple as that. Michael Frayn's farce-within-a-farce is simply the funniest play ever written by a human, and it's so good that even high schoolers can get surefire laughs with it. Put this script in the hands of talented professionals, however, who can find laughs beyond what's written on paper, and you've got an evening so stuffed with laughter that you'd better prepare yourself to ache from all the funny.

I am indeed old enough to have seen the original Broadway production of Noises Off in 1984 with Dorothy Loudon, Victor Garber, and the unforgettable Paxton Whitehead. I've seen community Theater Productions, touring productions, and even the ghastly 1992 film version. Third Rail's production is as riotous as any of them, with moments that had me shaking in my seat. It's not perfect - it takes a little while to get started - but it's damn good once it gets going.

Of course you know the play: a low-rent English theater company is putting on a lame sex farce called Nothing On, full of slamming doors, mistaken identities, and sexual innuendos. Act One shows us the final dress rehearsal, where tensions are beginning to mount and the actors' personalities are intruding on the business of getting the show up and running. Act Two takes place a month later, entirely backstage, as a performance of the show is nearly destroyed by the infighting among the cast and crew. Act Three comes at the end of a long tour, when the actors clearly hate the play (and each other) and seem determined to destroy it.

The key to any farce is pacing; if the audience has too long to think about what they're watching, they'll start questioning the silly logic of the plot and stop believing in the goofball characters. Noises Off is loaded with exposition in Act One, which needs to be sped through in order to keep the audience involved. Director Scott Yarbrough doesn't quite accomplish this; the play starts a little slowly, and the mechanics being set up are a bit obvious. While the cast is game, they're not able to work up the rhythm and energy to make Act One as delightful as it could be. However, once Act Two begins and the physical comedy takes over, the cast shines, and the amazing choreography - the act is almost wordless - takes over, and we're overjoyed. The joy continues in Act Three, as the disasters pile up and the cast's demeanor falls apart.

You've got to have amazingly dedicated actors to pull off Noises Off, and Third Rail's cast is astonishing. Maureen Porter has delighted me on a number of evenings over the past year, and she's wonderful in the often underplayed role of Belinda, whose good cheer and unflagging positive energy can make her a bit of a drip. Porter makes her crisp and clever, working overtime to keep the performance from falling apart. Act Three, when Belinda feels compelled to explain the various onstage problems to the audience, shows Porter at her resourceful best. Spencer Conway, as Frederick Fellowes, the somewhat dim bulb, is heroically funny, particularly when showing his character's weaknesses; he faints with aplomb and apologizes genially every single time. Isaac Lamb plays Lloyd Dallas, the play's director, with barely suppressed rage and a certain wry charm, and he makes each of Lloyd's tantrums unique and special.

The other cast members are equally talented. Karen Trumbo's Dotty Otley, the star of the show, is bumbling and confused both on and off stage, though Trumbo does seem to struggle with the character's accent. Damon Kupper gives Garry a bouncy energy and turns the character's inability to complete a sentence into a charming affectation, though whomever stuck that horrid wig on him should be punished. Kelly Godell is chipper and good-natured as Brooke, the ingenue who is determined to say every single one of her lines as written, no matter what happens. David Bodin finds some new notes in the usually tiresome character of Selsdon, the company drunk. Amy Newman and Rolland Walsh play Poppy and Tim, the backstage crew, and they're cute and game for whatever's thrown at them - which sometimes includes an axe.

The set is just perfect. Designer Sean O'Skea has given the cast a wonderful playground with lots of doors to slam and just the right amount of tackiness; it spins around to show the backstage, which looks appropriately dreary (though much more spacious than any backstage I've ever visited). Emily Horton's costumes are delightfully ugly, though they do bring into question exactly when the show is taking place; is it all now, or is the play-within-a-play a period piece, or is the whole thing set in 1984? Sound designer Scott Thorson has found a trove of 1970s Muzak to play before the show and between acts; it brought back memories of the easy listening junk my parents were fond of, but also made me question what year I was watching.

Minor quibbles. Noises Off is just plain hilarious, and Third Rail is commended for putting it on at this time of year. The holidays can be stressful, and what do we get at the movies? Heavy-going Oscar contenders? Big acdtion movies? Wrong. We need a little farce right about now. To misquote Stephen Sondheim, "tragedy tomorrow...comedy for Christmas."

From This Author - Patrick Brassell