Noises Off by Michael Frayn is an ingenious comedy about the rehearsal and performance of Act One of a sex farce. The first act of Noises Off is the final rehearsal when the self-absorbed actors are continually confused about lines, cues, and entrances, as seen from the audience’s perspective. The second act, which takes place at a matinee a month later, is seen from backstage where the same distracted and preoccupied actors wait in the wings for their cues. In the third act, which takes place close to the end of the sex farce’s run, the action is seen from the audience’s perspective again. By this time the actors are so exhausted that they are deliriously incoherent.
In other words, Noises Off is meticulously orchestrated chaos. It’s a play within a play. Or perhaps, it’s more specifically a play about an act within a play where everything goes wrong. The paradox is that the cast members can only pull off what Frayn has conceived if they correctly portray all the incorrect business and actions he’s written. Therefore, if not executed impeccably, the show will become real chaos as opposed to the entertaining image of chaos. An actual train wreck as opposed to an inspired re-enactment of one. And it’s great to report that at the Guthrie Theater the collectively masterminded chaos is impeccable, beguiling, and uproarious.
Director Meredith McDonough’s cast never misses a beat or a syllable. All characterizations are splendidly heightened: paced and timed with striking precision on a set that conveys the affluence of the sex farce setting on one side, and plain functionality backstage, cleverly designed by Kate Sutton-Johnson.
In 1982, I saw the original production of Noises Off and it remains in my memory as the most impressive stage I’d ever seen to master such a formidable degree of difficulty. It blew my mind as we used to say back then. In all the decades since, few productions of any play, if any, have equalled the mastery of ensemble craft of that original Noises Off production I saw on London’s West End. However, the Guthrie’s brilliant cast achieves something mighty darned close to Frayn’s premiere vision.
Additionally, Noises Off is among the most rollicking and best realized Guthrie productions of the past several years. It’s a total and complete escape to a madcap wonderland dimension, hermetically sealed away from the here and now of 2018. Do something really nice for yourself and see it!
Through Dec. 16
Guthrie Theater, 818 S. Second St., Minneapolis