Review: “Noises Off” at San Francisco Playhouse

Farce is quickly becoming the most under-appreciated form of theatre. Though most modern audiences are generally familiar with the format, specifically its penchant for slamming doors while terrified characters duck in and out of the stage at a rapid pace, its immense difficulty in staging tends to intimidate most theatre companies, and thus simpler comedic fare is favored—I have not had the pleasure of getting to see a production of a proper farce since I first started reviewing shows two years ago. That’s reason enough to celebrate the San Francisco Playhouse’s current production of Noises Off, a genuine high-speed farce in which every single one of the show’s ten doors gets slammed with metronomic regularity for the entirety of the performance.

But, of course, farce is far more than a technical exercise. When done properly, the form can milk laughter from an audience like nothing else. Even a totally air-headed example like Boeing-Boeing can have an audience roaring in their seats from watching the hapless characters face greater and greater danger thanks to their own exploits. Of course, Noises Off is not fluffy-headed at all, but a piece of theatrical craftsmanship of almost mind-boggling ingenuity: so perfectly made from snout to tail that one has to wonder how on earth someone could have the skill to even begin writing it, much less finish it with as much aplomb as author Michael Frayn does. Or, at least, you would wonder—if you were ever able to stop laughing for long enough to wrap your head around the action. I doubt you will—I spent the entirety of Noises Off desperately gasping for air as the play ruthlessly forced more laughter out of me in two-and-a-half hours than I previously thought possible.

Like all good farce, the plot is endlessly complex, but the premise is relatively simple. Noises Off is about a third-rate troupe of British actors attempting to stage a touring production of the farce “Nothing On”, a parody of British sex-farces of the 1970s like Run for Your Wife or No Sex Please—We’re British. The first act is a glimpse at the final dress rehearsal for the show before opening night, in which the proceedings are frequently stopped in order to remind actors of their lines or when their cues are. We get a basic knowledge of how the plot of “Nothing On” works, a look at the actors’ personalities and how they interact with each other—as well as the director, stage manager, and stagehand—and a general sense of dread in that this production seems to not be ready for public exhibition and is undoubtably headed straight for disaster. The second act rotates the set 180º and the audience gets to see how the actors interact with each other backstage during a run of the show, only now it is a month later and everyone in the company is at each others throats, subtly or not-so-subtly attempting to sabotage each others’ performances. The third turns the set back around once again, and we are made to witness the production’s final performance, presumably a few months later, when everything has gone to hell and nobody can bring themselves to care if the show works or not, though not even they could possibly be prepared for how many disasters truly end up taking place.

Yes, that is a brilliant plot structure, and thankfully Michael Frayn, author of such weighty political dramas as Democracy and Copenhagen, wrings every laugh possible from it, and possibly even more than that. His script for Noises Off is well-wrought enough to arguably be considered the best farce of the twentieth century, but what makes it a true masterpiece is its element of meta-theatre. Noises Off is a farce, but it’s also a play about farce. Fundamentally, the play answers the audience’s inherent curiosity about the inner workings of that which they are only able to see the exterior of. The relationship between the actors’ characters and their own personalities, the written and the impromptu, the onstage and off, is thoroughly explored and, like the rest of the show, exploited for as much laughter as possible.

The third act, in which we see the disastrous performance, manages to be as funny as it is because we know both how the performance is supposed to go, and why it is going wrong. There is an ominous sense of impending doom throughout the first two acts, and getting to see just how right we were that it would all fall apart is both unimaginably funny and oddly satisfying in a way that makes Noises Off a perfect example of setup and payoff.

Of course, Noises Off, much like “Nothing On”, threatens to totally fall apart if even a single hair is out of place. Every moment has to be timed with razor-sharp precision or else the whole thing becomes a self-defeating exercise. I was eager-yet-nervous to hear that the San Francisco playhouse was producing such a show. The Playhouse’s ability to chose great plays and produce them with acute sensitivity has been exciting and entertaining enough for me to consider them the best company in the area, but the requirements of Noises Off, namely a 9-person cast and a truly sturdy double-decker rotating set, made me slightly wary. It turns out that my fears were totally unwarranted: the San Francisco Playhouse’s Noises Off is perfect, and I don’t use that word lightly. Under Susi Damilano’s impossibly precise direction, every member of the ensemble works together so tightly that they feel like they are in their tenth year performance, not their first month. Every moment, particularly the almost balletic second act, is as tightly wound as a wristwatch. But what makes it all come together are the performances. Ms. Damilano clearly understands the cardinal rule of farce, which is that the more seriously the actors take their performances the harder the audience will laugh. If the play weren’t so funny, the cast could believably be performing a serious drama, and it is precisely because of that seriousness that the stakes feel real and the performance work so well.

Singling out performances in such a tight ensemble feels superfluous, but two cast members stuck out so strongly in my mind that I would be remiss not to mention them. Patrick Russell is given the most physically challenging role, and he pulls it off with such gusto that I am surprised to learn that he doesn’t have any acrobatic or gymnastic background, and Nanci Zoppi once again manages to stand out merely by her ineffable ability to pull the eyes towards her every moment she is onstage, here taking what could very easily be a role that gets lost in the shuffle and making it shine. George Maxwell’s set is very very sturdy and features doors that slam with a shimmering musicality.

Bravo to all involved in the making of Noises Off. This production deserves to run until the end of time, but barring that, be sure to get tickets to see it three or four times before it closes on May 13th.

Noises Off runs at the San Francisco Playhouse in Union Square until May 13. Tickets and information available here.

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