“I have one of those very loud, stupid laughs. I mean, if I ever sat behind myself in a movie or something, I’d probably lean over and tell myself to please shut up.”
– JD Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
I’m going to confess something verboten amongst “respectable” theatre folk: I actually love the film version of Noises Off! Scandalous, I know. For fans of the original stage version (of which I am one), Peter Bogdonavich’s film adaptation is supposed to be exemplary of everything that goes wrong when a play is adapted for film. I might as well stand up in the middle of a Beckett play and shout “I love Cats!” for all hate the Noises Off! film gets. (I’ve never seen or heard Cats, so I can’t love or hate it.)
I can see where the haters are coming from, but they’re wrong. Yes, the film makes the actors (in the film) American, adds an unnecessary narration, and an even-less-necessary happy ending. That doesn’t change the fact that the film is otherwise a loyal recreation of the play. Again, Frayn’s play was meant to be seen and read on stage where it has the most impact. But Bogdonavich and his crew created a film with a palpable love and understanding of theatre, comedy, and audience perception.
Only half of that is true for the new SF Playhouse production.
In the English town of Weston-super-Mare, an eccentric troupe of actors are about to go on tour performing the door-slamming British farce Nothing On. For director Lloyd Dallas, this should be a simple show with which he can kill time before going off to direct Richard III. It should be simple, but Murphy’s Law has a way of turning the easiest tasks into complete crises.
Between actors forgetting their lines and begging for “motivation”, set pieces falling apart at the wrong time, and Lloyd’s own philandering ways, the cast and crew will be lucky to finish the tour without killing one another first (intentionally or not).
Few elements in comedy are as important as timing. It doesn’t matter if you’re performing stand-up, acting in a sitcom, or performing in a circus – your routine will often live or die purely by timing. Even the worst-written jokes can be saved by a performer who really makes it fly. Why do you think “The Aristocrats” has endured for more than a century? A performer who can read his/her audience and get them to laugh on his/her terms is less a clown and more of a conductor.
Michael Frayn knows how to write comedy. It’s ingrained into each and every line of Noises Off! He also knows the importance of timing, which is why his play is a satire of actors performing a British farce. If you want to argue the importance of timing in comedy, you can’t do it with farce because the whole purpose of that genre is that the jokes go too fast for you to ponder the pure absurdity of the scenario. So the last thing Noises Off! should be is slow. Unfortunately, that’s the first thing this one is.
From the opening lines, director Susi Damilano seems to have insisted that her cast take their time with each and every line, and it only works to the detriment of the show. There were moments of silence in the audience because the momentum of the jokes was constantly being lost with all the time the actors were taking with their readings. And when the lines weren’t read too slow, Damilano has them hammer each joke into the ground, as if she doesn’t respect the audience’s intelligence to pick up on them otherwise. This results in two acts, 1 and 3, that retain Frayn’s hilarious dialogue, but unnecessarily stretch the show to 2 hours and 15 minutes.
Where the play really shines in Act 2. The opening dialogue is still too slow and I wondered by Poppy’s front-of-house mic wasn’t live (especially after Lloyd’s live mic in Act 1), but once we see the actors backstage during Nothing On, they’re bound by the pace of the on-/off-stage action we don’t see. This pushes the play into warp speed as we see one of the best silent comedy routines since the disappearance of Vaudeville. The cast are all up to the task of making a Tom & Jerry routine out of every step and slap. Had the entire production been performed at this pace – which it’s not too late to do – the show would only benefit from it.
It certainly benefits from its wonderful cast. As director Lloyd Dallas, Johnny Moreno strains to maintain composure as he waits for the straw that will break the camel’s back. Or perhaps it already has? Either way, it’s hilarious to watch. Monique Hafen, who recently headlined Damilano’s Playhouse production of She Loves Me, plays Brooke as ditzy model-turned-actress. It’s hard for a good actor to play a bad one, but Hafen’s intentionally stiff delivery and awkward practiced gestures left the audience in stitches every time. If Craig Marker and Patrick Russell went on the road performing as Freddie and Garry, respectively, I’d be the first one to buy a ticket. Russell in particular pulls of one of the show’s more painful pratfalls, which he does to hilarious perfection. And I’d be remiss not to mention Nanci Zoppi’s as Belinda, Noises Off!’s closest thing to a comedic straight (wo)man. Her one moment of standing alone on stage during Act 3 makes the show worth seeing.
The remaining actors seem underused, particularly Monica Ho. An SF Playhouse regular and one of the Bay Area’s best actors, Ho’s strengths of being in the moment are strangely downplayed here. It’s as if Damilano didn’t like the characters of Poppy and Tim (Greg Ayers) and just put them on stage out of requirement rather than inspiration. Similarly, Kimberly Richards (Dottie) and Richard Louis James (Selsdon) also suffer from the slow pace of this production.
As we watched George Maxwell’s set rotate at the start of Act 2, it was as if we in the audience we watching the snail-paced show from the first act transform into the rapid-fire screwball comedy it should have been from the opening curtain. Again, this production is not bad, but the languid pace of the first and third acts (and the beginning of the second) take away from a comedic masterpiece. It’s not too late to fix those pacing issues, but it’s going to require trusting the cast’s ability tell good jokes, and the audience’s ability to pick up on them.
Noises Off! runs until the 13th of May at the SF Playhouse.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.