We sometimes take for granted the acting talent evident on Twin Cities stages, but then you see a precise, laugh-out-loud production such as “Noises Off” and you are reminded: “Damn, they’re good.”
British writer Michael Frayn’s 1982 comedy, which opened Friday at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, should be long-in-the-tooth by now. It’s a three-act play at a time of short attention spans, with a bunch of characters prancing around in their underwear. (The Brits are fond of their juvenile sex farces.) But when it’s executed well — as it is in director Meredith McDonough’s gleefully entertaining staging — “Noises” offers an exhilarating escape at a time when we could use one.
A cockeyed valentine to the theater, it celebrates the jazzlike improvisational skills of stage actors who deal in the moment with all sorts of calamities. Frayn got the idea while watching a show from backstage. It dawned on him that the real-life drama could be funnier and more dynamic than the make-believe world the audience sees.
“Noises” is about a touring company of actors tackling a farce called “Nothing On.” Frayn captures the mounting mayhem by showing the action on stage and behind the scenes.
The first act takes place during rehearsals, as director Lloyd Dallas (played by comic master Nathan Keepers) struggles to get his not-ready-for-prime-time players into shape.
Act Two shows us a performance a month later, with the scenery turned 180 degrees to give us a behind-the-scenes view (Kate Sutton-Johnson designed the wowing, 1970s-era set, while Sara Ryung Clement gave us the garish costumes).
Finally, we see the comic meltdown a few weeks later that is a natural result of all the personal entanglements and the fraying of relationships and props.
The cast includes Sally Wingert, who plays waning TV star Dotty Otley, who can’t quite remember the order of her actions in the play-within-a-play — is she supposed to put down a telephone and then take out a plate of sardines, or vice versa? — all while making a gesture that would make the AFLAC duck proud. It’s a one-note role, but Wingert finds many different colors.
Johnny Wu plays stage star Garry LeJeune, who is fabulous onstage in scripted situations but goes blank when he has to think for himself. Listening to the frustrating dumbness of his character is like getting lost in a suburban cul-de-sac: You realize you’re never gonna get where you’re going.
Eager-beaver young actor Brooke Ashton (Kate Loprest), who has an uncanny ability to stay on script regardless of whatever mayhem is happening, is not quite a ditzy robot, but is close to it, complete with glassy eyes. And Guthrie veteran Raye Birk brings uncanny verisimilitude as a wizened actor who’s hard of hearing and prone to the bottle.
The cast is rounded out by JuCoby Johnson as a put-upon stage manager; Remy Auberjonois as an always fainting actor with a serious fear of blood; Laura Jordan as the acting troupe’s solid anchor; and Kimberly Chatterjee as the assistant stage manager. Together, this skilled ensemble makes “Noises Off” a good opportunity to get your laughs on.
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