“Noises Off” is one of the most popular comic plays of the last forty years. If you have ever seen it performed, you know it can be hilarious; the film version proved that there are some plays that can not be made into movies because they are so completely theatrical.
This is a story about the original Broadway production and an apology from me to Victor Garber, who starred in it.
The play is about a fictional production of a comedy that repels every attempt by cast and director to pull it together. The nonexistent comedy the cast is rehearsing is called “Nothing’s On,” and it is one of those British doors-being-slammed-at-precisely-the-right-time-on-the-wrong-person types of farce that no one remembers thirty minutes after they left the theater but that every summer stock company has in its annual repertory. The characters are actors who are has-beens, almost-but-not-quites, and hopeful wanna-bes, so the levels of performance ego are completely covered.
The first act is a dress rehearsal in which none of the actors seems to remember (or have ever learned) their lines or where they are supposed to stand. The (real) audience thus learns how the play ought to go and how terrible this particular production might wind up becoming. Since the fake play—”Noises On”—depends on perfect timing, but the actors can not hit their marks perfectly, the real play—”Noises Off”—presents actors the opportunity to miss their marks with perfect timing. It is extremely funny. We also learn that several of the characters have romantic interests or think they have romantic interests or fear that others have interests in those whom they are interested in. We realize that this will probably lead to jealousies and on-stage performance disaster later.
The second act is the same play, but seen a month later, and viewed from backstage. The playwright Michael Frayn has recalled that he was inspired to write “Noises Off” while he was watching one of his other plays in performance from backstage. It occurred to him that what he was watching: the intricacies of performers doing their jobs well and not well was funnier than the play itself. The second act of “Noises Off” is the result of that idea. After the first act, we the audience know the fake play very well, perhaps better than the fake performers, and now the interpersonal relations between the actors have deteriorated after a month spent touring small theaters in remote towns, falling in and out of love with one another. They hate each other and undermine each other’s performances, but they cover up the backstage soap operas from any audience ever picking up on anything amiss. The second act is fast and tense, as the mayhem is kept barely under control. The jokes are multi-layered as the performers depict characters screwing up scenes and recovering from them, catching props that are falling when they shouldn’t, finding themselves in the wrong spots at the right time, and vice versa.
“Noises Off” must be great fun to perform. Samuel French, Inc., which owns the rights to the play, lists 59 current or imminent productions of the play in the United States and five upcoming in Great Britain and one in Germany. These are the productions in which official rights were requested and received; there are probably another 50 unofficial high school and college productions in rehearsal around the country right now.
The third act depicts the end of the run, ten weeks later, and relations among the cast members and the director have deteriorated even more. The “actors” won’t speak to one another offstage by now, so why should their characters speak to one another on stage? The brilliance of Frayn’s play is that very little of the play is anything other than the lines from “Nothing’s On.” None of the characters serve as a narrator or helper for the audience. We are watching the rehearsal and performance of a play that is supposed to be tightly performed being performed poorly, which is itself a perfect performance of perfect timing. By the end of the run, the characters are so dedicated to undermining each other’s performance that the production is a shambles and several of the actors are forced to improvise some sort of resolution, both of the play on stage and their worlds.
It is one of the funniest plays in English. Period.
The play was a hit on London’s West End, and in 1983 the production moved to Broadway. An all-star cast was assembled: Dorothy Loudon, Paxton Whitehead, Linda Thorson, Jim Piddock, Brian Murray, and Victor Garber, among a few others. Victor Garber was not unknown by then—he had two Tony Award nominations and had been “Jesus” in the film of “Godspell,” for His sake—but he was unknown to me at the time.
At the time, I was 14 and a theater nerd along with a baseball nerd and a newspaper nerd. A nerd. For the first and only time so far in this life, my friends and I (all of us high school age) waited outside at the stage door for autographs. The autograph I wanted was from the actor who played “Garry Lejeune,” because his performance was like nothing my eyes had yet seen on stage or anywhere: completely in control of how out of control his character is. That was Victor Garber, who of course has had a great acting career. The actors emerged from backstage and each one was gracious with their time and could not have been closer to perfect with us teenagers; any nicer and they would have been buying us dinner at Sardi’s. It was a movie version of a happy scene outside a stage door.
A lot of people work in a theater, and the stage door is their exit from a day’s work, too. One young man emerged, a bicycle slung on his shoulder, gazed at the small crowd of teenagers, looked nervously about for a way around it/us, and attracted no interest from any of us. He paused and sheepishly murmured, “Autographs,” as if he had just noticed a couple autographs in his pocket that he could give away. A reluctant salesman. He had no takers, and he dropped the bike from his shoulder, hopped on, and rode off.
When the guy on his bike was about two blocks away, I realized I had missed my chance. The entire encounter with Victor Garber had unfolded in five seconds, tops. In my child’s mind, he looked sad, dejected, like he thought “My performance just now set fire to the stage of the Brooks Atkinson Theater not ten minutes ago and now I am anonymous again.” Anonymous to children, no less. And he was indeed transformed, amazingly, from the wild stuttering character onstage to an anonymous stagehand carrying his ride home on his back.
He may not have been sad or dejected; he may have been happy to get away with his autographs still in his pocket; he may have had plans for dinner at Sardi’s, but I was sad that I had not had the chance to … to what? Say thanks? I do not know, but I could not help but think whenever I saw him in one of his many subsequent roles on television and film that I had contributed to making a wonderful actor’s day end poorly.
Not that he is going to read this, but Victor Garber: I’m sorry.
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This is an edited version of a column from March 2015.
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