Noises Off : A Whiplash, Slapstick Valentine to Theater

The setup:

I'm still laughing! It's been hours since the final blackout at Alley Theatre's peerless rendition of Michael Frayn's peerless farce, Noises Off!, and the smiles continue, and the more I think about this riotous comedy, the laughs start all over again. If this isn't the funniest play ever written, I don't know what is. And if this isn't one of the best things the Alley has ever done, witless Garry Lejeune would know... The execution:

This whiplash, slapstick, out-of-control train wreck is Frayn's loving, heartfelt and silly valentine to the theater, to all those who labor so long and so hard to put on a show, no matter how awful that show is, nor how hapless the performers. Here, the show these second-rate, bumbling actors perform is a third-rate sex farce called Nothing On. (The fictional cast get bios in the Playbill that are as funny as the play.) The pickup company is about to tour the provinces, and, need I say, they're not ready -- and never will be. In Frayn's three-acter, we watch the company stumble through Nothing On's first act during a disastrous dress rehearsal, hours before the premiere, then, in stunning coup de theatre fashion for Act II, we watch the same act from backstage a few weeks later on tour, when nerves and relationships have begun to fray. In Frayn's Act III, we're back in the audience for the final performance of the tour and watch the first act again, as any of the wheels that haven't fallen off before fly off as in a cartoon, and everybody's at wit's end, bored with the show, and can't wait to get out of there and on with their lives.

Along with our constant laughter, Freyn's immensely well-oiled machine never slows up and never, ever stops. Let's start with Dotty Otley (Kimberly King), the actress/producer of this road show who's put together this witless sex farce to augment her dwindling pensioner's bank account. It's final dress rehearsal and she still can't remember her rudimentary blocking with that plate of sardines. Does she exit with them after she puts down the telephone and the newspaper, or she is supposed to exit with the newspaper and leave the sardines, or hang up the phone and leave the newspaper and take the sardines? She never gets it right, and the sardines, and what she's supposed to do with them, is a continuing running gag throughout the play.

Everything that Frayn masterfully constructs builds in hilarity like this and eventually pays off in our even bigger, continuing guffaws. The second act not only contains those ubiquitous sardine props, but also ups the ante with a fireman's ax and a potted cactus. You can guess where the cactus ends up. Oh, yes, there's also the bottle of booze and a bunch of flowers that make an appearance to drive all to more distraction.

What a magnificent ensemble cast -- the Alley one, that is, not the Nothing On one. Along with the delightful Ms. King (who doesn't appear often enough at the Alley), as besotted Dotty, the actors include Alley vets and some new faces we're eager to see again.

The Alley pros include James Black, as harried, overbearing director Lloyd (wittily costumed and made up to look like the Alley's artistic director, Gregory Boyd, who has directed this romp with split-second silent-movie-comedy pizzazz); Josie de Guzman, as sweet-tempered gossip Belinda, whose "the-show-must-go-on" attitude gets a rude awakening as the tour progresses; Melissa Pritchett, as bombshell -- and dumb as a bomb -- Brooke, oblivious to whatever mayhem is going on around her while spilling out of her skimpy costume; John Tyson, as washed-up Selsdon, always stashing a bottle of alcohol somewhere close where he can get at it and missing his cues; and Todd Waite, as clueless, nose-bleed-prone Freddie, always asking for his character's motivation and never quite getting it.

The new faces to savor are Mic Matarrese, as aging ingénue Garry, who mistakenly believes Dotty is having an affair with Freddie and, later, with shoelaces tied together -- don't ask, but it's awfully funny -- has the best accidental tumble down stairs since Buster Keaton; Allison Guinn, as sad-sack Poppy, the ineffectual stage manager, who mistakenly announces a very personal secret to the entire audience through the loudspeaker; and Ben Diskant, as overworked company member Tim, who understudies for Freddie, Garry and Selsdon and probably would for Dotty, Brooke and Belinda, if necessary. These new three fit in seamlessly with the Alley veterans. As they careen about the stage, all whirl like pinwheels.

Pratfalls are as necessary to farce as a well-turned naughty phrase -- and Frayn's witty dialogue is just as funny as the outlandish physical shtick -- and these pros must be exhausted after such a workout, although the effort doesn't show. Meanwhile, we're left black and blue from laughing so hard. Hugh Landwehr's lollipop-colored set is a farce fun house with eight -- count them -- eight doorways, that the actors, as they enter or leave, open or bang shut with the perfection of a Swiss watch run amok. In a well-crafted farce, there can never be too many doors.

The verdict:

No matter what mood you may be in when you enter the Alley, be warned, you'll leave laughing. You won't be able to resist its charms. There's a special place in heaven for Frayn's play, and for the Alley's solid production, too. Goofy and frenetic, with an internal logic that defies the norm yet shows us our own foibles, this spectacular comedy puts us squarely on cloud nine. As we settle in, all comfy on our fluffy cushion, all we can do is look down at ourselves and...well, you know...laugh.

Michael Frayn's epic farce soars merrily through June 24 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. Purchase tickets online at or call 713-228-8421. $39-$77.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover