Is 'Noises Off' a Trifling, If Amusing, Farce, or Really the Great Dysfunctional Relationship Play?

Doesn't this remind you of your ex?
Henry DiRocco/SCR

Going Through the Emotions
SCR begs the question: Is Noises Off merely a trifling, if amusing, farce, or actually the Great Dysfunctional Relationship Play?

To sit and write any more than a few dozen words about anything beneath the surface of a play such as Noises Off is to court imminent disaster. Because everything is surface in Michael Frayn’s exhaustingly hilarious 1982 farce.

Or is it?

Anyone who has seen one of its ubiquitous productions knows the score of this three-act romp. It’s the night before a plucky band of thespians opens a self-financed sex comedy. While they’re enthusiastic and determined on the exterior, serious problems lurk: dropped and mangled lines, rampant infidelity, alcoholism, and neuroses.

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In the second act, we see what happens backstage during a run-through of the play a month later. Somehow, the show is even worse than the dress rehearsal. Though actors gamely try to hit marks and remember lines, they do so while tearing around backstage, alternately making out and trying to decapitate one another.

In the third act, we again see the audience perspective of the play-within-a-play, now nearing the end of its run. Burned-out and exhausted, the cast sleepwalks through its performance, enthusiastic only about getting it over with. The show is still going on, but it should have been retired weeks ago.

It’s a riveting, belly-laugh-producing farce that, at its best moments, feels like screwing with the sheets on fire or the Marx Brothers waging anarchic war in Freedonia. A good production of Noises Off is about as good as theater gets.

And this South Coast Repertory production, directed by Art Manke, is very, very good. An impossibly talented cast struts and stumbles its way across an impossibly well-appointed set, infusing the already-frenetic action with choice bits and idiosyncrasies: Kandis Chappel’s grossly exaggerated enunciation (how can someone make Spain a three-syllable word?); Timothy Landfield’s painfully funny turn as the bumbling, oft-injured Frederick Fellowes; and, most surprisingly, Jennifer Lyon’s remarkable turn as the play’s blond bimbo, Brooke Ashton. This character is usually portrayed as deer-in-the-headlights stupid, but Lyon’s repertoire of postures and poses gives the impression that, instead of the weakest intellectual link, she might be the brightest light on an admittedly dim stage.

Quibble all you want with a theater of SCR’s pedigree tackling a play with scant intellectual merit, but times are tough even for the relatively filthy rich. If you’re going to sell yourself to the populace, you might as well make sure you’re having a hell of a good time in the process.

But maybe the fact that SCR, a theater more accustomed to Harold Pinter than Neil Simon, is mounting such a trifle forces a reappraisal of Noises Off. Is there more to this play than meets the eye?

Probably not, nor does there need to be. It’s perfect for what it is. But still—bear with me, here—Noises Off mirrors another of humanity’s most gloriously twisted exercises in disappointment: a bad relationship. A really bad relationship.

Think of the first act of Noises Off as the first stage in a relationship: excitement and hope abound. Everything is smiles and acceptance. We walk on eggshells, careful to not offend the other, accepting all flaws. After all, there’s a higher purpose: opening night on one hand, knocking boots and avoiding loneliness on the other.

The second act mirrors the sobering realization in a relationship in which one is—or both are—racked by serious doubt. Too much feels broken; too much work is necessary to fix it. The truth is there, waiting to kick you in the face. But, still, we soldier on. There’s always tomorrow night.

The third act is that terribly sad, seemingly endless stage of a bad relationship: Things are shit and will only get shittier. Nothing will fix it, and it’s simply insane to deny that fact.

But even bad shows have a defined shelf life: There is a closing performance. Bad relationships last longer than a 17th- or 18th-century European war—with endings as equally ill-defined. (You still with me on this journey of overanalysis? Almost done, promise.)

In the play within Noises Off, the show still goes on, even though everyone involved is repulsed by it. But Noises Off itself doesn’t gnash its teeth over this doomed piece of theater; it revels in the havoc and chortles amid the caterwauling chaos. And that’s the final similarity between this play and that relationship: Even the worst ones contain their share of wickedly exciting fun—hell, that’s probably what earmarked them for destruction from the start.

Noises Off at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; Tues.-Wed., 7:30 p.m.; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through March 8. $28-$64.



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