The Austin Chronicle

Zach Theatre's Noises Off

Even after 40 years, Michael Frayn’s backstage farce is fun, not funny

Reviewed by Bob Abelman, June 23, 2023, Arts

Sorry, but Michael Frayn's Noises Off just isn't funny to me.

Clearly, the 40-year-old comedy is funny enough to warrant three revivals in London's West End and two on Broadway. And it's funny enough to have become a staple of both amateur theatres and professional playhouses the likes of Zach Theatre, where its opening night production earned rounds of laughter and a standing ovation. But not from me.

It's not that I don't like funny. I do. It's been said that Frayn conceived of the idea for his backstage comedy while watching from the rear wings a different play he had written and realizing that plays are funnier from behind. I find that people are funnier from behind. So there's that.

And it's not that I don't like backstage farce. I love Terrence McNally's irreverent It's Only a Play, which features a playwright anxiously awaiting the opening night reviews of his Broadway play along with his dysfunctional creative team and an infamously savage critic. It's alternately raucous, ridiculous, and tender – a love letter to the theatre.

Noises Off is merely ridiculous. It follows an insecure and incompetent acting troupe defined by their respective foibles – drunk (Michael Stuart), dim-witted (Maggie Anderson), jealous (Andre Martin), delicate (Tobie Minor), melodramatic (Liz Beckham), and absent-minded (Tonie Knight) – as they tour in a silly British sex farce titled Nothing On. They are accompanied by the show's emotionally exhausted director (Marc Pouhé), anxious stage manager (Mai Le), and her overworked assistant (Phillip Kershaw). On a beautiful set fashioned as the living space of a Tudor home in the country, designed by Todd Rosenthal (scenic) and Austin Brown (lighting), the show serves up plenty of door slamming and slapstick, a young actress running around in her underwear, and an older actor with his trousers dropped to his ankles. It's a love letter to Benny Hill.

It's not that I don't like ridiculous. I love Henry Lewis, Henry Shields, and Jonathan Sayer's The Play That Goes Wrong, which takes place on the opening night of an overly ambitious murder mystery as performed by an accident-prone amateur troupe. Perhaps I find this funny because the ridiculousness comes sooner, faster, with higher risk, and with greater reward than Noises Off, which limps along by comparison.

Each of Noises Off's three acts contains a performance of the same scene from Nothing On. Act I takes place during a calamitous dress rehearsal and is laden with exposition that sets up the next two acts and the clever business that will become running jokes throughout the show. Fun, not funny. Act II takes place at a Wednesday matinee performance one month later, where the onstage action is seen from the backstage. While Nothing On is being performed, we witness in pantomime the deteriorating relationships and romantic rivalries between cast members. It's clever in its conception and well-timed in its execution, but not particularly funny. It's not until Act III, which depicts a performance near the end of the show's 10-week run, where everything has gone to hell and cast members – who no longer give a damn – lose their place and end up ad-libbing their way through the show. Here is where the funny resides.

And yet I'm not laughing out loud. Or standing. The reason, besides the long-delayed gratification, is that Noises Off is driven by a mediocre script that asks little more from its performers than that they say their lines, hit their marks, and grab hold of the right props at the right time.

Director Monique Midgette – who in her playbill reflections notes that she, too, "never got Noises Off" – compensates for the bad writing by tapping Zach's most valuable and abundant asset: really good actors. While some are too hamstrung by the script, most breathe more life into their characters than the playwright has provided. This is particularly evident in Act III, where Anderson has not only supplied her dimwitted and scantily clad character with a hilarious over-rehearsed physicality but has bestowed upon her an astounding inability to ad-lib. And Stuart as the older, often drunk, and always unreliable thespian brings a marvelous humanity to the role, which best comes into play as Noises Off comes to a close.

But after two acts of "meh," it's too little, too late for me. So, what's everyone else been laughing at here and for the last 40 years?

Zach Theatre's Noises Off

Topfer, 1421 W. Riverside, 512/476-0541

Through July 9
Running time: Approx. 3 hrs.

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