Theatre Review: Short North Stage Kicks Off 2021-22 Season With Hysterical, Anarchic ‘Noises Off’
Michael Frayn’s 1982 hit in London and Broadway, Noises Off, set a benchmark for a behind-the-scenes theatrical farce that has rarely been approached. Originally scheduled for last year’s shuttered season, Short North Stage opens its current, packed season with a finely-tuned production, full of wild, wincing laughter, directed by Jake Loewenthal.
In Noises Off, we meet a cast of players of varying experience trying to mount a new play – Nothing On – through a tour of smaller markets before (hopefully) making it to London. Minor faults yawn into gaping wounds and small misunderstandings spiral into hilarious rage and chaos over three acts.
Drilling down to the specificity of these people at this moment in London – for a play whose story could be anywhere at any time – lends a special glow to Loewenthal’s production, helped immensely by Jason Bolen’s classic set and Edward Carignan’s costumes.
Dottie, Blythe Coons’ lifer, hoping to start a second stream of income by investing in this new play, and Jonathan Putnam’s Selsdon, a troubled classic gray man of the theatre, lean into the Britishness of the character types with enough humanity to give the hijinks ballast.
The deep knowledge of those types makes them more universal. Edward Carignan – mostly known in Columbus as a director and choreographer for years – tears into the cliche funhouse mirror version of the role as Lloyd Dallas, in classic ‘80s lounge lizard style.
Lisa Glover’s Brooke Arthur is a masterclass in outward overstatement, but deployed with masterful restraint. Pure delight were the words that came to mind again and again, watching her character repeat those couple lines through the three acts, holding her chin up, determined to do this while subtly hinting at the stress and degradation she’s been through. Michael Liebhauser’s Garry Lejeune uses a wild physicality in his door-slamming sequences in the play-within-a-play as Glover’s foil, and as the spikiest corner of a love triangle with Coons’ Dottie and Luke Bovenizer’s hilariously dense Frederick.
Tess Marshall is astonishing as Belinda Blair, the hardened theatrical lifer who will carry the show on her back if no one else will. Watching her keep her composure as things go wrong “on stage” in the play within a play and one of my favorite moments, watching her military crawl back to replace a prop that had turned into a dark metaphor for things going wrong.
The tag team of Eli Brickey’s Poppy and Joe Gallagher’s Tim, working behind the scenes and absorbing heaped-upon abuse from the “artists” around them, have hysterical chemistry, as Brickey does with Carignan’s Dallas. They also serve as the point of view characters, relatable to anyone who’s ever had a job that made them feel disposable, while also summing up so much of the knowledge of their lives on and around the stage.
For a comedy about and embodying the hurricane chaos of the creative process, the play feels a little long – two hours and forty minutes with two intermissions – to contemporary audiences. However, everything that feels a little belabored in the first act pays off, usually big, in the second and third. This production rewards close attention even during its most breakneck sequences.
If there’s a lesson to be gleaned in Noises Off, around the dazzling physical comedy and door-slamming lunacy, it’s a reminder of the difficulty inherent in making something good. And the way various self-interests, egos, and agendas can chip away at that unity of purpose.
The magic of the play – when it works – is that you need an exceptionally cohesive cast, operating on the level of total awareness while playing people who are hilariously oblivious. And the cast assembled here does that in spades. Watching items flying from the top of the set, caught and tossed in balletic movements that feel realistically clumsy, is a marvel.
One of the hardest things to play is exhaustion. The sharpness of timing required to keep the intensity and quick change comedy popping in the everything-falls-apart third act is almost more impressive than the more vibrant set pieces in the backstage second as the players have to balance how tired and infirm their characters have begun. Everyone seems to have a ball that extends through the audience.
Noises Off runs through September 19 with performances at 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, please visit www.shortnorthstage.org.