The world is a stressful place right now. If you need a couple of hours to check out, engage in some self-care, and recharge your batteries with laughter, I recommend Pentacle Theatre’s production of Noises Off, directed by Susan Schoaps.
Written in 1982 by British playwright Michael Frayn, Noises Off is the mother of all modern farces and includes the most quintessential “play-within-a-play” since Pyramus and Thisbe. Act one presents the dress rehearsal of a standard British sex farce called Nothing On, which is funny enough in itself. Act two shows the backstage action of the same play, as relationships between actors have deteriorated into homicidal attacks by jealous lovers. (Full credit to scenic designer Tony Zandol for the full-set revolve; this effortless transformation from front-stage to back-stage is a nice piece of theatre magic.) Act three returns to front-stage for a disastrous final performance of the farce-within-a-farce.
Theatre (like Hollywood) loves plays about itself. You can tell the theatre people in the audience by who laughs at specific in-jokes in act one. However, the brilliance of the Noises Off is how it invites general audiences into the theatrical world, so that by act three the audience is as familiar with the play-within-the-play as the actors, allowing spectators to feel each misstep and desperate ad lib.
The most important thing here is that the play is extremely funny. There is nothing like farce for the joy of slamming doors, falling down stairs, and perfectly-timed prop humor. But there is something else as well—the desperation to keep going, despite failure and opposition and imminent doom, the ceaseless optimism of the human spirit—that lies at the heart of all true farce.
The cast is a mix of Pentacle regulars and newcomers, who play well as an ensemble. The actors hit all of their marks and the energy remains high, yet focused. I credit director Susan Schoaps for orchestrating this controlled chaos. The only call out I will make to the cast is to Maxwell Romprey as Gary. Of the roles I have seen Romprey perform (Rosencrantz, Evan in The Aliens, the young man from Anne Frank), this one is by far my favorite. I think he has at home in comedy.
Not everything was perfect. Act two had so much going on that it was difficult to know where to look, especially when sitting on the sides of the house. The chemistry between some of the back-stage hook-ups was lacking. And the intensity of some performances shot up so quickly that some actors had nowhere to go later in the play. That said, none of those flaws especially bothered me during the performance itself. The sexism built into the script is mitigated by costuming and acting choices, which was a welcome relief. Rest assured—there is still strong language and plenty of innuendo; I would suggest a rating of PG-13.
Nothing clears the head—and the heart—more than a good belly laugh. If you need a respite from the world, but are striving for some positive human contact—the kind you get from sharing an experience with a community in the same space as living, breathing human performers—this is this place. Noises Off runs through Feb 11.