Anyone who's been in a play knows that there are always two simultaneous dramas: the one presented to the audience, and the often more desperate one backstage.
Noises Off is a play about a play. We see the dress rehearsal of the first act of the play-within-a-play, a dumb sex farce called "Nothing On." Though we like to distance ourselves from dumb things, we still enjoy them, and the complicated premise gives us permission; even "Nothing On" is pretty hilarious. Then, for the second act of Noises Off, we see the first act of "Nothing On" again, but from backstage. And it's hilarious for completely different reasons. Backstage it's still a sex farce, but the actors are involved with each other in different and more complicated ways than their characters onstage.
Then we see the same act from the front again, and, after 10 weeks of frayed nerves, it's devolved into a completely different play.
The creative inversion has made Michael Frayn's play a popular favorite, a modern classic, produced on Broadway more than once, but also by lots of community theaters. It was even an all-star-cast movie, 21 years ago.
The director is visiting maestro Greg Leaming, who's worked for decades on both coasts and is currently on the staff of extravagantly unusual Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Fla. His production is a light-hearted success, probably the funniest play Clarence Brown has hosted in a couple of years.
The cast of nine is perfectly balanced: three local pros whose names and faces have become well known (David Brian Alley, Jed Diamond, David Kortemeier); three visiting pros who've never played this stage before; and three UT theater grad students.
The setting's a surprise. Noises Off premiered in 1982. Perhaps inspired by the Mad Men vogue, or by the fact that we associate the sex farce with the Kennedy-Johnson years and all those bright naughty comedies starring Tony Randall or Elke Sommer, Clarence Brown's production looks very deliberately 1965. Not just the fashion-victim set, perhaps the home of a mod with a boozy interior decorator—it's reportedly inspired by Mondrian (!). Two of the female leads, Katie Cunningham and Johanna Dunphy, with substantial help from makeup and costume design, are so vividly mid-'60s you may be pretty sure you remember them both.
Cunningham's a visitor, a Carolina grad who's done a lot of work in New York; you'll wish she were a resident. Dunphy's an MFA candidate who's been in some recent CBT plays, like On the Razzle. (That play, the last one presented in this room, was another early '80s British farce. This one's funnier.)
The biggest spontaneous ovation on opening night went to the set. After the curtain rises at the beginning of Act II, we see the whole two-story-house-sized set rotate 180 degrees on a turntable, revealing the backstage, which becomes our scene for the next hour or so. That's where we learn—mostly via pantomime, because, even under stress, professional actors try hard to make no sound backstage—what's really going on. The backstage scene's athletic choreography is a well-rehearsed Harlem Globetrotters routine in which, instead of basketballs, the characters are passing whiskey bottles, bouquets, injured lovers, an axe, and a potted cactus.
We know, of course, that there's not another audience watching the play on the other side of the stage, but it's almost eerie that our perception of one makes the humor more uproarious.
It's hilarious. Go see it. You'll laugh. Take the kids; other than some F-bombs, it's just a little risque.
But its place in CBT's lineup presents one melancholy irony.
UT's Carousel and Lab Theatres are offering some daring and even fairly recent plays this year. But all four Clarence Brown mainstage shows this season—the local productions that get the most seats, the most professional casts, and the most extensive stage treatments—are scripts so well known that they've all, years ago, become major motion pictures.
Maybe it's just economic reality in the 21st century. You don't want to spend that much on a production unless you already know it's successful, and not just that, but familiar.
The settings of Noises Off are theaters in English market towns much smaller than Knoxville. But the premise of Noises Off is the premiere of a new play in a big auditorium with a professional cast and an elaborate set. It's something that hardly ever happens in Knoxville, dumb script or not, dysfunctional cast or not. What we get to see here is mainly stuff that's been proven popular elsewhere.
Even when people say, in the lobby, "It's as good as the production I saw on Broadway"—and at Clarence Brown, people often do say that—it can be a little deflating. A large part of the audience already has a comparative context for almost every play they see here.
On the big stage, we never get to witness the drama of an unknown triumph—or, for that matter, a flop.
Clarence brown Theatre: Noises Off
Clarence Brown Theatre
Through Sept. 22