Michael Frayn's 1982 farce Noises Off!—yes, it's 25 years old now—has never been among the best technical examples of the genre, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Masters of the form, such as French playwright Georges Feydeau, can take it to such extremes that it feels more like you're in the middle of a jigsaw puzzle than a typically structured play. Besides, Noises Off! more than makes up for whatever it lacks in intricacy by being outrageously funny.
Not that Noises Off! is an easy play to present. It combines all the trademark elements of farce—lots of slamming doors and frantic exits and entrances, mistaken identities, pratfalls and slapstick, high-octane pace—with that evergreen staple of European theater, the play-within-a-play. The first and third acts take place on a theater set, while the second act takes place backstage. But the result, in productions that work, is two and a half hours of the most irresistible type of escapism the theater can provide.
This production comes close—often tantalizingly close—to working very well. Director Nathan Makaryk's set is impressive, and his casting of young and—to my eyes, at any rate—mostly fresh faces to local storefront theater works well.
Yet although that cast is talented and enthusiastic, it's also a little full of itself. Incessant mugging constantly steals focus from what's important on stage, and constant improvising adds unnecessary noise to a show that's already cacophonous. (Foremost among the unnecessary distractions is the introduction of an impossibly big-eared Chihuahua, which looks like a cross between E.T. and a giant turd.)
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Meanwhile, the audience is trying to keep track of two plots, one concerning a traveling theater troupe's production of a play (the perfectly horrid and thankfully fictitious sex comedy Nothing On), and the other concerning the plot of that play itself. Follow? All of it is punctuated by visual gags and complicated by constantly changing allegiances.
With so many elements, the director is less visionary and creator than traffic cop. Adding more bits and one-liners and dogs from outer space makes it tough to follow the constantly evolving plot and threatens to bog the whole thing down in a traffic jam—the worst thing that can happen to a play like this, which demands a racing pace to stay vibrant.
It's still fun; the third act in particular is simply hilarious. But the lack of focus garbles it just enough to be irritating. And then there's that dog . . . .
NOISES OFF! AT MAVERICK THEATER, 110 E. WALNUT AVE, FULLERTON, (714) 526-7070. FRI., 8 P.M.; SAT., 3 & 8 P.M. THROUGH FEB. 25. $10-$20.