I suspect you’ll want to drop everything to see Helen Carey dropping everything in Noises Off. Phones, cues, plates of sardines, her dignity, you name it—at some point in Michael Frayn’s farce about a theatrical catastrophe-in-the-making, this estimable actress will make a show of dropping it. And quite a show, at that. The lady’s a hoot—hell, a hoot and a half—in a giddy free-for-all that should keep Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater packed well into the new year.
Been there, seen that, hated the movie, you say? Well, sure. Noises Off has indeed been done, if not to death, at least to hell and gone in the 23 years since the New York Times raved about its “exponentially accelerating hilarity.” Frayn’s farce-within-a-farce structure, mass performer meltdowns, and second-act reversal (where shenanigans backstage upstage those onstage), are catnip for theater companies, from the ones that win Tony Awards to the sort that serve buffets or perform in school gymnasiums. Peter Bogdanovich’s film version might have fallen flat, but since D.C. played host to a pre-Broadway engagement in 1983, this area has seen nearly a dozen productions of Noises Off, some of them quite sharp.
But none since the original (led by a downright feral Dorothy Loudon) has boasted a leading lady as exquisitely rattled and rattleable as Carey. She’s playing Dotty Otley, a washed-up television comedienne who’s invested her very last penny in Nothing On, a sex comedy her pick-up troupe of has-beens and never-weres is rehearsing as the curtain rises. It’s one of those witless British romps, peppered with puns, scantily clad femmes, slamming doors, and props going madly astray.
Except that mere hours before the premiere, the props are not going astray as the director intends, and poor Dotty, her hair a bird’s nest, her face a mask of confusion, hasn’t a clue as to whether she should eat the phone or answer the sardines when the newspaper rings. And it’s only the first scene.
“How about the words, love?” she asks the director piteously. “Am I getting some of them right?”
Though Carey often plays contemporary roles—an Oscar-worthy wounded neighbor in the current film Little Children, for instance—she’s mostly known hereabouts as a classical tragedienne, expert at exposing the inner demons of Lady Macbeth and the great queens of antiquity. As the long-suffering star of Nothing On, she might be said to be working the lighter side of that same street, loosing the demons that drive Dotty dotty: fear of losing a laugh, forgetting a line, or taking those damned sardines into the wings instead of the newspaper.
All of which is mere setup, of course. Dotty never even goes upstairs in Nothing On, and there’s a whole second level of madness going on up there—closets holding girls in lingerie, Arab sheiks emerging from bedrooms—and she and her confreres are going to go so spectacularly awry over the course of the show’s run, that these opening jitters will soon seem positively benign. Actually, they seem a little benign even as they’re played, because Frayn has to brush in so many character tics—the ingénue whose contact lenses pop out on every third line, the dim romantic lead who applies Stanislavskian technique to the slamming of doors, the aging tippler who can’t remember lines—to set up jokes that will pay off later.
But if the rehearsal backups and reiterations make Act 1 move a tad slowly, the result is a comic explosion after intermission, when Frayn whirls the set around so we can watch the same labored first act from behind the scenes a month into the tour. By then, romantic triangles every bit as complicated as the ones in Nothing On are playing out in the company itself, so that every actor’s exit from the stage is an entrance into a second minefield of illicit liaisons and dalliances. And while backstage assignations must be played out in silence so as not to disturb the performance, that doesn’t preclude the swinging of axes, the tricky sabotaging of entrances, and all manner of mayhem in what turns into a spectacular slapstick ballet.
When the set revolves again, so that we can watch the disintegration of the tour’s final performance from out front, the devastation generally just gets broader, not funnier. But Jonathan Munby (who knows a little something about clarifying intricate plots having staged the Royal Shakespeare Company’s six-hour The Canterbury Tales earlier this season) manages a neat trick in Arena’s production. With an assist from a sterling cast of farceurs that includes Arena veteran Robert Prosky as a wistfully appealing old lush, the director manages to make the humor cumulative to the last—still building on what we’ve learned of the characters and of their dogged theatrical conviction that the show must go on, come hell or dripping sardines.
Near the top of Act 3—which is still Act 1, but many provincial cities later—long after the company’s bad blood has had time to curdle, Dotty again finds herself standing onstage, this time with a newspaper in one hand, and in the other a plate of squashed and mangled sardines on which she has just been inadvertently sitting.
She gazes at each of them balefully, pausing just long enough to register that all is lost.
“I’m going to do something wrong here,” she growls.
And happily for everyone out front, she does. Sublimely, too.