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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Noises Off is Off
By Michelle Pett

Also see Elizabeth's review of On the Open Road

I've never seen anything like it. It was five minutes before the final curtain of a nearly three hour production and audience members were clawing their way to freedom over the laps of their bewildered seatmates. It was just like the lifeboat scene in A Night to Remember, without all the selflessness. Sure, Park Square Theatre's production of Michael Frayn's Noises Off was in full meltdown - but it was a faux meltdown, not a real one. Evidently, some of my fellow audience members didn't get it, hence the run for the exits. Wow.

Noises Off, a veritable Rubik's Cube of a play, twists and turns its way through the breakdown of a third-rate production of the bedroom farce, Nothing On. A meticulously plotted play within a play, Noises Off traces a comic path of destruction that begins during Nothing On's dress rehearsal and ends in pandemonium at its final performance. While the beleaguered plot of Nothing On is driven by sardines, doors and much dropping of "trou", Noises Off covers the petty conflicts, sexual peccadilloes and alcoholism that are part of many theatrical endeavors (and much of adult life, in general). Filled with stock characters playing stock characters, Noises Off is a hall of mirrors where artifice and "reality" are almost indistinguishable.

The cast within a cast is led by Wendy Lehr as Dotty Otley, a has-been actress trying to revive her career with Nothing On. Dotty's having an affair with Garry (Sam Landman), an Austin Powers-sound-alike who can only speak in full sentences when someone is feeding him the lines. Brooke (Jenner Snell), a bombshell with a Kewpie Doll voice, practices her mantra and a little sexual manipulation on Lloyd (E.J. Subkoviak), Nothing On's ambitious director. All of this occurs under the watchful eye of busy body Belinda (Kirby Bennett), who also keeps tabs on Fredrick (Steve Lewis), a muttonhead in constant need of a "motivation", and Selsdon (Tim McGivern), the cast drunk. The ensemble is rounded out by starry-eyed Stage Manager Poppy (Alayne Hopkins) and doofy Jack-of-all-Trades, Tim (Alex Morf).

All of this suggests that Noises Off has the potential for high camp, the natural milieu of director Joel Sass. In this case, Sass may have pushed the camp quotient a bit too far, playing the comedy so broadly that he undercuts the underlying desperation of Nothing On's denouement. Noises Off's first act is a fairly straight ahead rendering of a classic bedroom farce; taking place on the Nothing On set (a door-filled English ancestral home, all chintz and mounted bear heads), the veiled hostility and ineptitude that will eventually bring down Nothing On are introduced amidst the cast's lovey-dovey camaraderie. Act two, taking place one month later, ratchets up the conflict with highly physical, shtick-filled, pantomimed backstage havoc. By act three, Nothing On has nothing on, as the cast improvises its way through a series of comic catastrophes. Sass correctly paces the energy in act one, keeping it wacky but relatively low key, giving his ensemble room to explode into physical comedy in act two. Unfortunately, they push the envelope so far in act two that they don't have room in act three to really play the desperation that would be present if the production was in full meltdown mode.

Set Designer Randle Farris has done a nice job creating the physical world of Nothing On/Noises Off. His set rotates on a giant turntable so we get a highly realized Nothing On set and its backstage counterpart; it's like Doublemint gum with two, two, two sets in one. Sound Designer Montana Johnson's soundtrack of cheesy orchestral music is an endless 1950s commercial jingle; this is the stuff that sticks in your gulliver and wakes you up in the middle of the night.

Noises Off is a tricky piece of business to stage because it feigns a break in the wall between actor and audience. This phony break wasn't communicated effectively; that's why folks baled out - it was too painful to watch a performance self-destruct. A less campy approach to the third act may have allowed the cast to reach the comic heights required for the central conceit to work. As it is, Noises Off is more off than on, which is disappointing considering the pedigree of the play and the talent behind this production.

Noises Off May 25 - June 19, 2004. Thursday - Saturday evenings; Sunday matinees; performance times vary. Call the box office for schedule. Tickets $27 - $32, depending on performance. Park Square Theatre, Historic Hamm Building, 20 W. 7th Place, St. Paul. Call 651-291-7005.

Photo: Petronella J. Ytsma

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Elizabeth Weir

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