Michael Frayn's Noises Off, a slapstick farce, opened in 1982 to tremendous success, and it's easy to understand why. The premise was sound. A theater company is pushed past the breaking point : only two weeks to rehearse, sleep deprived, panicky, till they have a meltdown and personal lives start to affect what's happening on stage. Everyone's punch-drunk, or actually drunk, there's jealousy and brawling until the entire production regresses to bedlam. I have nothing but admiration for the cast (Lloyd Harvey, Jennifer Kuenzer, Juliette Talley, Kim Titus, David H. M. Lambert, Lisa Fairchild, Chad Gowen Spear, Carine Rice, Michael McGough) of Contemporary Theatre's current production of Noises Off, it's a terribly demanding script, requiring choreography of physical comedy in which timing is crucial. It's like watching one of those Rube Goldberg contraptions, acted out.
The show opens with the cast in a final crunch rehearsal. It's the night before premiere and half the actors are on edge, while the others are blissfully unaware of the impending debacle. Nerves are frayed, backstage romances are rippling into performance. The director tries to hold it all together, but it's like bailing out the Titanic. The first act forecasts the disaster to come in acts two and three in Nothing On, the play within this play. When the lights come up on Act 2, it acquires a frantic, manic energy that doesn't stop until show's end.
Now this may be a matter of personal taste (it's funny to a point) but Frayn pushes a bit hard. Surely no company would press on as far, they'd drop the curtain. Of course, we're willing to forfeit a degree of credibility for the sake of hilarity (some audience members were laughing throughout). But when you you're taking the characters (and us) to this feverish level of chaos and absurdity, you should probably have more than one gag . Once the train wreck is unavoidable, all illusions of an ordered universe vanish. It's a funny, cool, intriguing idea, but I'm not sure you can sustain it for three hours. All this being said, while Noises Off may be problematic, it's engaging and tickling and has some grand, enjoyable moments.
Contemporary Theatre of Dallas presents Noises Off, playing June 6th-29th, 2014.. 5601 Sears Street, Dallas, Texas 75206. 214-828-0094. www.contemporarytheatreofdallas.com