An actor totters onstage in Act Three of Artistry’s “Noises Off,” looks around with a glazed, deer-in-the-headlights expression and announces wearily, “I’m not here. … I don’t know where I am.” In a different play, her words could be a pronouncement of existential angst. Here, it’s just one more character crying “uncle” in the face of comic absurdity.
The journey that leads to this moment of dazed resignation begins three months and two acts earlier. As “Noises Off” opens, a second-rate British theatrical company is in the midst of mounting a third-rate farce titled “Nothing’s On.” Playwright Michael Frayn peoples his play with a wickedly funny assortment of theatrical types, and the first act offers a boisterous sendup of stage clichés as cast and crew valiantly plod through a dress rehearsal.
Leading this ill-assorted group is an imperious director, played with acerbic wit by Riley McNutt. He’s juggling affairs with two co-workers and watching the clock until he can move onto his next job. One actor (Ernest Briggs) is incapable of carrying out the simplest stage direction without a lengthy exploration of his character’s motivation, while another (Fred Mackaman) finds all the motivation he needs in a neat shot of whiskey.
There’s also Angela Timberman’s Dotty Otley, an aging actor trying to revive her flagging theater career while indulging in some hanky-panky with the leading man. And what farce would be complete without an ingénue (Emily Sue Bengtson in a hilariously wooden performance) who can’t act but looks appealing in her underwear?
By the second act, Rick Polenek’s marvelously conceived two-story set has reversed itself and we see a performance of “Nothing’s On” from backstage. A month into its ill-fated run, it hasn’t fared well.
Relationships and rivalries broadly sketched in the first act have now taken on a life of their own, with the actors barely holding their performances together as they squabble and wrangle.
By the third act we have returned to the front of the set, the stage is littered with discarded sardines and all pretense of a performance has vanished. The farce-within-a-farce has become a meta-farce.
Director Benjamin McGovern and a competent cast give this dizzyingly complex play a solid outing. The first act, which is essentially just a long setup for the second, could use a little tightening, but ingenious extended sight gags and acute comic timing buoy the well-choreographed chaos. Polenek’s set (which received its own round of applause on opening night) cooperates beautifully with its multiplicity of functional and dysfunctional doors.
Kudos to Artistry for creating much magic out of mayhem.
Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities theater critic.