Noises Off (Michael Frayn)

There’s something deliciously sneaky about reading a script. You see the actors fussing about on the stage when you watch a play, but you have access to the actors’ code book — the stage directions — when you read a play. It’s almost like you’re privvy to their secrets. It opens up a whole new world.

Noises OffThis month I read a play written in the 1980s called Noises Off by Michael Frayn. I saw the forgetable film version long ago. The movie’s talented cast gave robotic performances fussing about contrived technicalities that just weren’t funny on screen. The written script, however, reveals all those detailed goings-on. It was a great read. The fact that the story takes place on- and off- stage at a play made reading it that much more enjoyable.

Act One is set the night before an opening matinee. The actors stumble through their slapstick rehearsal so miserably that the director (and you the reader) has little confidence they will be able to ready for a live audience. Characters are constantly coming and going through the many stage doors. Actors miss their cues, flub lines, and mishandle props. It’s a mess.

Then comes the wild second act. The set is reversed and you (the reader) find yourself backstage at the premiere. You quickly discover that there’s much more chaos behind the scenes. Everyone is upset (or dallying) with someone, props are juggled, and little dramas play out. Flowers, whiskey, sardines, and an ax get passed around every time one actor exits to the stage and another re-enters backstage. Saboteurs trip up their rivals and victims seek revenge.

Eventually, all this silent chaos in the wings leaks out to the stage and the production just barely scrapes to a conclusion. The book is challenging to read at this point since you are actually going back and forth between two simultaneous, intersecting plays at once: one onstage and one backstage. But if you can follow it, it’s absolutely hilarious. Keeping up with the stage directions — the code book a theater audience never sees — is what makes this such a funny play to read.

When you think the play within the play can’t get any worse, it does. Act Three drops you back out in the audience watching the evening performance. Having read the play twice already (in Acts One and Two), you know the lines, the intended prop handling, and all the entrances and exits. You’re such an expert on what should happen, in fact, that you recognize the gaffes, anticipate the consequences of misplaced props, and see the entire production go down the tubes in a sputtering, misfiring, pathetic glory. If you’ve ever read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, a kid’s chapter book about a play, Noises Off might be considered the even wilder version for adults.

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