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REVIEW: Send in the Clowns for Noises Off (Guthrie Theater)

The cast of the Guthrie Theater’s production of Michael Frayn’s classic farce Noises Off. Photo by Dan Norman.

New York Times theatre critic Frank Rich once called Noises Off “the funniest play written in [his] lifetime.” I am not sure if I would go that far, but, certainly, Michael Frayn’s 1982 farce about actors trying to perform a sex farce is up there in my Top Ten. The production now playing at the Guthrie Theater is very funny, well-cast, and features several sensational performances and a marvelous rotating set.

There is something similar in spirit between Noises Off and the current hit The Play That Goes Wrong. This is a play about all the things that can possibly go wrong with a typical 1960s sex farce – called Nothing On, get it? – with a second-tier, provincial touring company. You can even find a clever fake ad in the program, the kind of touch that warmed up last year’s Hedwig production at the Ordway.

Both the play and the play-within-the-play feature all the standard elements of British farce: dropping trousers, stuck doors, loose door-knockers, and so forth. Things spinning out of control, with miscommunication, the loss of mastery over words, sudden intrusions and displacements, and words that have become separated from their customary meanings. The scripts contains, almost like hidden gems, sophisticated touches of absurdism and some light existentialist echoes. Some of the lines come close to sounding like something out Samuel Beckett’s The Unnameable. It’s a strong entry in the Guthrie’s fall comedy slot.

The cast of the Guthrie Theater’s production of Noises Off hunt for a missing contact lens. Photo by Dan Norman.

There’s more than escapist fun and empty silliness going on in this play.  Frayn’s plot is beautifully simple: Act One consists of that rehearsal, in Act Two we see a performance a month later, and Act Three, another month later, takes place near the end of the tour. At first, the actors are lovely, exchanging pleasantries and frothy terms of endearment; later, well…

One of the funniest scenes occurs when Brooke Ashton (Kate Loprest) loses her contact lenses and the cast, with the utmost sensitivity and cooperation, proceeds to search the bottom of their feet synchronously.  Frayn draws laughter by dismantling the actor characters’ illusions of artistic authority and control until, through the accumulation of mishaps, the whole production breaks down. The playwright takes clear delight in unmasking the pretensions of theater artists and their sometimes-inflated sense of autonomy.

Rehearsing the play-within-a-play we find a forgetful leading lady, Dotty Oatley (Sally Wingert), an insecure assistant stage manager named Poppy Norton-Taylor (Kimberly Chatterjee), and a pretentious, alcoholic actor named Seldom Mowbray (Raye Birk). The leading man, Garry LeJeune (Johnny Wu), can barely string together words to form a sentence. (Another similarity with The Play That Goes Wrong.)  Frederick Fellowes (Remy Auberjonois) plays a well-meaning, middle aged stock actor who is insecure and frequently clueless, the kind of person who always seems surprised to find himself anywhere at all.  Craving reassurance, he’s a habitual apologizer. Everyone has issues: Mowbray keeps disappearing to sneak a drink, Fellowes’ wife has just left him, Ashton keeps losing her contact lenses, and Dallas is trying to maintain affairs simultaneously with both Ashton and Norton-Taylor.

One of the show’s standout performances is Nathan Keepers, playing the director of the play-within-the-play. Keepers is the Twin Cities’ very own Charlie Chaplin, a clown supreme and prince of slapstick. Casting him as Dallas – a jaded, promiscuous, and narcissistic theatre director – was a stroke of genius by director Meredith McDonough. Keepers displays a dripping sarcasm and condescension that is simply hilarious, especially in a notable scene with the ingénue Brooke Ashton (a second must-see performance by Kate Loprest). Loprest is an absolutely smashing comic actress that would have you rolling in the aisles if Guthrie allowed that kind of thing. However, the playwright’s directions place Loprest performing most of the play in bra and panties while the rest of the cast remains fully clothed – a distracting element that fulfills the author’s intent and the license conditions, but also comes across as more jarring to audiences of the #MeToo present.

One of many things goes badly wrong in the play-within-a-play in Noises Off. Photo by Dan Norman.

Other notable performances are delivered by Raye Birk and Sally Wingert. Birk’s performance is very fine and delightfully giddy as the aging and hard-of-hearing alcoholic Mowbray. Wingert’s performance as Dotty Otley, a has-been, one-time sitcom regular, is simply fantastic.  Dotty is one of the most famous comic stage roles for women, and Wingert does it fine justice here. She holds the audience in the palm of her hand and her double takes are classic Wingert gold. Another notable element is the splendidly tacky rotating set by Kate Sutton-Johnson, which displays the house and backstage views in different acts.

In general, the physical comedy in Act I is fantastic – the hunting of the lost contact lens is a classic, with everyone perfectly in sync – but some of the later physical comedy is not as tight at it might be.  Great slapstick and farce need to build like a ragtime piano piece, with precise and quickening rhythms. It needs to have a sureness of foot, almost like ballet. There was, at times, a sense that the intricate and physically demanding choreography was not tailored well to the full cast. The best performances shine, but the sheen is not even across the cast.

Did You Know?

Sardines, plates, and doors figure prominently in Noises Off. The word “sardines” is mentioned 228 times and four plates cause assorted trouble. The eight doors open and close 360 times – and no, that’s not a typo.

Noises Off plays through December 16 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, MN.

Kit Bix