Michael Frayn's brilliant Noises Off is one of the cleverest, funniest farces ever written. This is a play within a play — actually, a play outside a play. It depicts the struggles of a third-rate company touring the English provinces in a corny sex farce called Nothing On — lots of doors to be slammed and jammed, accidental meetings and missings, a young woman running around in her underwear, a man dropping his pants. Also many plates of sardines. (I've no idea why sardines are funny; they just are. Many years ago, during my dissolute, pot-smoking youth, a woman named Marcia described a game called Sardines to a happily hazy group of us. The game was something like tag, she said, and once you were caught, you became a sardine; you could only shake off your fishiness by catching someone else. "You lose your sardinity?" someone piped up. We all found this so insanely funny that we never actually got around to playing the game. But every time we found ourselves together over the coming weeks, we made Marcia recite the rules, repeating "sardinity" again and again in an ecstasy of imbecilic amusement.)
During the first act of Noises Off, the flustered, under-rehearsed company runs a dress rehearsal under the eyes of their director. The set (by the talented Vicki Smith) depicts a gracious country house created from a converted posset mill (I can't imagine why posset, a curdled, milky medieval drink, would need to be milled). There are paintings of dogs and horses; you can see a rose garden just beyond the window. The humor comes from the cast's attempts to figure out their myriad exits and entrances, when to pick up their props and where to put them down, as well as overly sensitive Frederick's insistence that the director explain his character's motivations, and his inability to understand that people in farces don't have complicated motivations. We also discover the tangled romantic relationships among the actors. The second act takes place behind the scenery we saw in the first, in a world of raw wood and trailing wires. Through the doors and windows of the flats, we periodically glimpse the actions we've already seen the cast rehearse; among those supposedly off stage, there's squabbling and jealous rage. This is the most slapsticky part of the play. The third act takes place some weeks later, when the actors' arguments have gotten entirely out of hand, and they're on stage trying to get through the scene, fighting emotions that range from indifference through exasperation to complete mental meltdown. The difference between theater and real life becomes blurred, the actors appear to have trouble remembering whether they're themselves or the people they're playing, and the fourth wall doesn't just get breached, it gets smashed to smithereens.
Kent Thompson is a whiz at farce, as we know from the very successful A Flea in Her Ear, the first production he mounted after being named artistic director of the Denver Center Theatre Company. Noises Off isn't easy to stage. Half the pleasure of watching comes from admiring the ingenuity of the structure and seeing how — despite the madcap pace of the action — every single element eventually clicks neatly and smartly into place. Every movement has to be timed to the second, every object set precisely in its place. Thompson achieves this, although the second act, with its mimed and frenzied action, could be more focused. Several times I found myself intently watching one particular character, then being tipped off by a gale of audience laughter to the fact that I'd missed the moment's real comic payoff — which was occurring between two completely different characters on the other side of the stage.
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through November 1, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
You need limber, energetic, resourceful actors for this show. But though the cast members throw themselves into their roles to the point of exhaustion, there's an awful lot of hamming and shtick. What's missing is any sense that these are real people: absurd people, yes; characters in a farce, sure — but still breathing humans with histories and desires. And though the play's physical humor more than receives its due, there's far too little focus on the verbal humor. In fact, many of the English accents are so mushy and the speech rhythms so off that I missed important pieces of information. Still, there are standouts: Morgan Hallett makes poor flustered stage manager Poppy believable, and Megan Byrne is a game and effective Belinda. David Ivers brings his usual ebullient energy to the role of Garry; the character's mustached would-be suavity is in hilarious contrast to his inability to put together a single coherent sentence. Kate MacCluggage is a hoot as a sinuously vacuous Brooke.
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The company manages to raise plenty of laughs, but what it doesn't do is make me feel as I did when I first saw Noises Off in the 1980s: breathless, amazed and barely able to breathe, as if I'd just been shot headfirst through quiveringly blue skies filled with tumbling laughing-gas clouds.