Review: 'Noises Off' Fills Pool With Skillful Chaos

Crimson/tor K. Krever

LOUDER AND FUNNIER: MARGARET A. WEATHERS '04 holds together a disintegrating play in Noises Off.

Noises Off

Adams Pool Theatre, November 13-23

Directed by Andrew Arthur

Produced by James S. Patton ’05

Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, which played in the Adams Pool the past two weekends, is one of those backstage comedies in which the personal problems of a set of actors slowly but surely spill over into the play within a play that they’re performing. Noises Off’s offstage world runs like a fast-paced sex comedy: the leading actor has just been abandoned by his wife, another cast member is convinced that his girlfriend is cheating on him, and the director is sleeping with both an actress and the stage manager. Nothing On, the play performed in Noises Off, is just as farcical, involving a pair of tax agents who sneak into the unoccupied home of a client for a sexual rendezvous only to run into the housekeeper and the house’s owners, who have returned from a tax-evading holiday in Spain.

During Noises Off’s three acts, the boundary between onstage and offstage action progressively disintegrates: in the first, the actors square with each other during a dress rehearsal; in the second act, an increasingly hostile company does battle backstage a month into their play’s tour; by its closing night, seen in Noises Off’s third act, Nothing On has become a nonsensical wreck.

While Noises Off has a fairly clever script, the success or failure of any farce is heavily dependent on timing and the ability of the actors to quickly convey all of the details of a complicated comic situation. Fortunately, the Harvard production possessed a strong cast, with every one of its members giving a memorable and energetic performance.

Particularly outstanding was Joshua M. Brener ’07 as Lloyd, the director of Nothing On; Brener’s exasperation, exhaustion and manic self-dramatizing perfectly captured Lloyd’s overwhelmed and overeducated personality. Margaret A. Weathers ’04 was fine as Belinda, the play’s straight woman and Nothing On’s only cast member without major physical or emotional problems; her constant attempts to restore the squabbling cast to order were accompanied by a businesslike aplomb and a tight, cheery grin. And Sara E. O’Brien ’04 was convincingly meek and angry by turns as Poppy, the industrious and abused stage manager.

The play’s only serious acting difficulties came in the tricky second act, during which the cast members deal backstage with a complex and shifting network of sexual jealousies, an alcoholic actor, an irate audience, and an unplanned pregnancy—all while they’re trying to keep quiet to avoid disrupting the action onstage. Any company would be proud of this production’s skill with the gag coordination and choreography called for in Frayn’s script, but the act’s pacing in this staging was so breakneck that a considerable proportion of the jokes flew past either without being noticed or understood. While it’s unlikely that any production could pull off this act in such a way that its audience could understand everything that was happening, a small decrease in this production’s pace would have led to a great leap in audience comprehension while sacrificing little humor potential.

The actors shone in the third act, in which the characters struggle through their show despite improvised lines, broken scenery, missed entrances and flying sardines. Jokes that could have been fairly insipid on paper—three actors coming on at once to play the same part and delivering their lines in unison, an actor coming on several times to deliver the same line that’s already been delivered by someone else, a couple returning to a home that’s covered with newspapers and fish and having to be convinced that nobody’s been there—were hilarious onstage, thanks entirely to the cast’s timing and great ensemble acting.

Other weaknesses were mainly the fault of the script. The first act failed to be very interesting, since it’s mostly used to establish characters—the spacey blonde, the apologetic wimp, the alcoholic stage veteran—by harping on their idiosyncrasies, which meant that much of the act’s humor was repetitive and rooted in slapstick.

Kudos are due to Eric D. Tytell for creating the play’s tripartite set, with a back wall for Nothing On on one side and the backstage doors on the reverse. The only downside to the set is that its sizable changes between acts required a considerable amount of time, necessitating two intermissions—during which the production’s loop of piped-in classical music began to grate.

Noises Off does not pretend to be great drama; indeed, its lack of a compelling plot is its biggest weakness. It is no more or less than a well-constructed farce, heavily dependent on the energy and skill of a cast to bring it to life. In this, despite some weaknesses, the Adams production definitely succeeded.

—Crimson Arts Critic Alexandra D. Hoffer can be reached at hoffer@fas.harvard.edu.