Saturday, April 28, 2018

'Nothing On' to lose: IRT's 'Noises Off' sends up chaos of inept theater

Fantasy fulfillment: Actor sticks it to the director of "Nothing On"
Michael Frayn's "Noises Off" suggests that theater has something in common with the law and sausage: If you love it, you don't want to see how it's made.

But that's exactly what the play has you look at, unsparingly and to hilarious effect. The process by which a provincial British troupe cobbles together an antic comedy is itself subject to farcical distortion under Frayn's cracked lens, as Indiana Repertory Theatre demonstrated Friday night.

The season-ending production incorporates the company's capabilities at a little-visited end of its theatrical spectrum: fast-paced intricate physical comedy, with every bit of action and dialogue pitched at a feverish level.

As in many farces, "Noises Off" at bottom upholds the hoary dignity of "the well-made play." Each of its three acts advances the story, such as it is, and forms a unit that shifts perspective one forward jerk at a time.

In the first act, a woefully underprepared troupe attempts to get "Nothing On," a cluttered caper comedy involving tax avoidance, petty crime, and clandestine trysting, ready for the public. The  harried director is at his wits' end — and his wits would rather be applied to classic drama and sly canoodling with actresses.

In the second, with Bill Clarke's splendid approximation of a Tudor manor turned around to shed unforgiving light on the backstage milieu, the stageworthiness of the feckless show is further challenged by interpersonal intrigue, pouts, fits, and jealousies. We pick up bits of what "Nothing On" appears to be from behind, as if through a scrim of nonsense, with manic gesticulation and tossing about of props dominating the dialogue.

An embarrassment of stripe-shirted burglars is among the astonishments.
It's the slaughterhouse vision of theater at a low ebb, and it emphasizes the somewhat mechanical aspect of farce. Everything is precisely timed, expertly coordinated, like the Harlem Globetrotters warming up to "Sweet Georgia Brown." But, unlike the smooth icon Meadowlark Lemon and his colleagues, this teamwork has to look as if all those desperate attempts to uphold the banner of "the show must go on" are on the verge of falling into a heap. Every "pass" must be a near-miss in an exhibition of virtuosity that will cause audience jaws to drop, when they are not busy quaking with guffaws.

The last act turns the prism once more, presenting the living-room set again and signaling via several false starts that the "Nothing On" team is thoroughly exhausted by the tour, disgusted with one another, and making it evident that they are individually and collectively on their last nerve. We get fitfully galvanized bits of "Nothing On" and a haphazard assemblage of frantic improvisation and missed cues right up to the final line.

Frayn's double vision is reinforced by the IRT's insertion of a fake program about "Nothing On" with a series of droll biographical paragraphs of the cast. The cast of IRT's "Noises Off" can claim more substantial professional credits, and they build upon them here. If the Middle Ages had Nine Worthies to represent the ideals of chivalry, the IRT has nine worthies to stand for the enduring appeal of locked-and-loaded theatrical farce.
In the manic second act, an axe is brought into serious play.

To single out the comedic virtues and celebrate the peculiar energies of all would be tedious. Suffice it to say that each actor portrays a person who, if lacking depth, thoroughly represents a type of person probably found even at higher levels of competence — and not only in theater, but in corporate life generally. The vain, distractable but ineffectually conscientious director; the world-weary, shaggy or shabby battle-scarred veterans; the dim-bulb ingenue; the perpetually overworked and underappreciated stage managers; the glaringly positive sort with a gossip-mongering shadow side; the self-absorbed young divo given to assessments that trail off vaguely; the dense mid-career thespian saddled with crippling vulnerabilities and last-minute, misplaced insights.

Director David Bradley keeps the kettle boiling. Everyone masterfully folds in the irrelevancies Frayn plays with — there's an axe involved, and a cactus— especially in the second act. Indeed, whether the playwright or the production is to blame, you can get dizzyingly caught up in the sheer technique involved in the physical comedy (Jerry Richardson deserves some sort of Buster Keaton award) such that the frayed relationships that contribute to it become abstract and depersonalized. Depending on how you look at it, this lifts the second act into some exalted plane far above petty human squabbles or lowers it to a collective exercise in mere rib-tickling virtuosity.

Whatevs, as the kids say, or used to say. One thing is certain: You will never look at sardines the same way after seeing "Noises Off."  In the history of theatrical food, and by many degrees of magnification, "Noises Off" does for sardines what "The Importance of Being Earnest" did for muffins.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]