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The 2011-12 season of mainstage productions at Playmakers Repertory Company at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was primarily filled with plays about quite serious topics and lofty themes. From the freedom riders of the early 1960s civil rights movement to the disturbing demons of marriage in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf to Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V this was a superb season of mostly lofty themes and seriousness. The final production has gone off the dial at the other extreme with the fast-paced and frenetic presentation of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off.
Although the play was written in 1982, Frayn has made numerous revisions – most recently in 2000 – of this farce about a theater company’s rehearsal, opening night, and later performances of a lightweight sex comedy and the supposed process of putting on this play. Written using the oft-used device of a play-within-a-play, my impressions of this production need to be clearly delineated between the play itself and Playmakers’ presentation.
I will put it out there right away that sitting through the two-and-one-half hours of this script was, for me, the equal of being forced to watch bad FOX sitcoms - but, as the famous breakup line goes, “It’s not you, it’s me.” Next to religion and politics, I have found that commenting on what/why someone finds something funny can be quite perplexing and divisive, much more so than musical preferences.
Noises Off is unabashedly a farce and makes no pretense of “sophistication" - that's a given. Now I do not consider myself “highbrow” in my taste and still like watching original Three Stooges and other physical slapstick comedy, but instead of laughing during hardly any of the play I was left to ponder the conundrum of humor, what people find funny, and why. Of course I did not come up with any answers and won't venture any theories so as not to risk being labeled the comedic equivalent of "eastern, establishment elite." For instance, are doors slamming still funny after literally hundreds of times this occurs during the course of the play? Matthew Schneck, playing the befuddled leading man Garry Lejeune, is unable to complete a line - or a thought - and it is a clever and funny bit. But after about the 30th permutation of this shtick I had to suppress standing up and yelling "I GET IT!"
All that said, anyone watching this production must be immensely impressed by the consummate production values, direction, and acting chops of everyone involved. During the first act, the nine characters quickly inhabit the stage and the acted overacting, farcically feigned phoniness, and slamming doors begin. Director Lloyd’s voice booms from offstage in the first few moments and right away we’re engulfed in madcap antics, pants falling down, women in their underwear, and musings on sardines. This is rapid-fire theater - let’s quickly move on to the next thing before you realize the repetitiveness of what you’ve just seen! - and it is quite a technical feat for the director and actors to pull this off so seemingly effortlessly without even the slightest fender bender.
The second act, set at a matinee performance about a month later, takes the vantage point of being viewed from backstage and continues the deterioration of the actors’ relationships, more sexual discoveries, and, yes, more doors slamming. I continued to admire the remarkable talent of all the actors, the staging, and the effective set design, and I desperately tried to stop thinking, evaluating, and judging and just lie back and enjoy it, but I failed.
This is not that unusual a situation in any artistic endeavor. The messenger is superb, but you just don’t like the message, be it a wonderfully played musical work that you dislike, a technically dazzling movie with a preposterous story, or a well-executed comedy that fails to produce one laugh from you. This is most definitely a virtuously engineered theatrical production and will no doubt delight those for whom this style of comedy is appreciated.
Noises Off continues through 4/22. For details, see the sidebar.