THEATER REVIEW | At the Jungle Theater, “Noises Off” piles up


Michael Frayn’s 1983 Noises Off is an inspired comic invention: a farce about a farce. The play’s three acts are variations on one act of Nothing On, a fictional comedy being performed by a hapless British company. The first act is a rehearsal, the second is a performance seen from backstage, and the third is a performance that goes terribly awry. The key to squeezing the maximum comic potential (and there’s a lot) from this scenario is to build the Noises Off looniness until it exceeds that of Nothing On. The atypically hammy production now onstage at the Jungle Theater, though, plays everything so broad that there’s nowhere to build to.

The set design by director Joel Sass and costumes by Amelia Cheever closely echo those seen in Peter Boganovich’s superb 1992 film adaptation, which just reminds anyone who’s seen that film how good the likes of Michael Caine, Carol Burnett, John Ritter, and even Christopher Reeve (!) were at hitting the right tones at the right times. The current Jungle production has just one tone: big and bloozy. The mayhem is technically well-choreographed (no mean feat in and of itself), but much of the play’s character-based humor is lost.

The dry, understated Stephen D’Ambrose provides sips from the same tonic I’d like to have been offered more consistently by E.J. Subkoviak as the pill-popping director of Nothing On; instead, Subkoviak looks like he’s about to have an ulcer every time he’s on stage. As scantily-clad sexpot Brooke, Summer Hagen impresses with absolutely ironclad ditziness. The rest of the cast members—including Cheryl Willis, Ryan Nelson, Bradley Greenwald, and Kirby Bennett—all have their moments but collectively rise to an impenetrable din, especially during the frenzied second act. Most disappointing are the supporting characters Poppy and Tim, played by Kimberly Richardson and Neal Skoy so goofily that Nothing On starts to seem like a subtle character drama.

Frayn’s play was inspired by the observation that the backstage drama at many plays is often wilder and more interesting than what’s happening onstage. That’s absoluely true: real life is amusing, especially when dramatized in such elegantly absurd fashion as Frayn manages in this classic script. The script is so good that it’s hard to ruin—I must admit to laughing hard during the opening minutes of Act Three, but I think I would have been laughing much more often if Sass and his team had let these characters keep their feet on the ground.

10 thoughts on “THEATER REVIEW | At the Jungle Theater, “Noises Off” piles up

  1. I couldn’t agree more, MIchael Caine was great in that movie.  Of all his movies, it may not be one of his Top 10, but certainly Top 50.  I kind of prefer that other movie he was in with Sean Connery, “The Man Who Would Be King”.  A favorite because it has both Connery and Caine in it.

  2. Big and bloozy is exactly what it should be.  It’s a farce.  Perhaps if you’d taken any theatre courses at Harvard you’d have learned that.  The film was largely panned when it was released and fairly unsuccessful.  No critic worth anything would compare stage to screen.  They’re completely different mediums and completely different techniques are used to accomplish them.  I’m amazed that someone with two masters degrees doesn’t know that.  What kind of people is Harvard accepting these days?

  3. The extended history of a particular theatre and contents of a press kit have no place in a theatre review.  You’re there to review the show you’re seeing not give us a history lesson or tell us about the free stuff you get as a member of the press.  These things are not a matter of balance.  You’re job is to review the show, so review the show and let trivial things like water bottles you got in the mail lay by the wayside.  Comparing a theatre production to a film is the crutch of a poorly trained reviewer.  We want to hear about the production, the set, the lights, the acting, the directing.  We want to hear how the show made you feel.  If things like the film affect you, fine.  Mention them briefly and move on.  We read reviews to read about the show and that is all.

  4. I’m not saying that the show should never be “big and bloozy,” I’m saying it should build to that so as to create dramatic/humorous contrast. This production played everything so broadly from the very beginning (both “on” and “off” stage) that it lost the opportunity to gain momentum. Some may prefer the show that way, but I personally laughed harder at the movie. Yes, a movie and a play are two different types of entertainments, but we’re talking about two hours of the viewer’s life either way. What’s the better way to spend those hours? Clearly you and I disagree on the answer to that question.

  5. As a reviewer, you need to leave your preconceived notions and any other baggage at the door.  You can’t compare a local theatre’s production to a hollywood film filled with superstars.  You don’t give the actors and other artists involved in the production a fair shake.  You go in already biased because you’re expecting the film and are disappointed when you don’t get it.

  6. I’m sorry, but that’s untrue. I knew very well I was attending a theatrical production: a professional theatrical production. I didn’t expect to see the movie. I was prepared to enjoy director Joel Sass’s vision. As it happened, I did not enjoy this production of the play as much as I enjoyed the movie, and I said so. Audiences can rent the movie for much less than they would pay to see the play, and it’s my personal opinion that the movie is a better way to enjoy the story than this particular theatrical production is. I understand that others might disagree.

  7. As a lover of the theatre, I think you do a disservice to the art form and to the audience by drawing such comparisons.  If you enjoy the film, fine.  Keep it to yourself.  You’re not reviewing the film.  

  8. This is not the first time I’ve been told to keep my focus on what’s onstage, not what’s offstage. The Chanhassen took me off their press list in part because I made “comments regarding souvenir water bottles and the wall calendar we included in your press kit” rather than restricting my comments purely to the onstage content of Jesus Christ Superstar. A member of the MovingCompany wrote to me and criticized my decision to discuss the company’s history so extensively in my review of Werther and Lotte—rather than just reviewing the show at hand. These things are all a matter of balance, but in general I think that these arguments are specious. Anyone’s appreciation and understanding of any work of art is colored by the environment, the history, and by other works of art he or she has seen. Should I have omitted comparison to the Wizard of Oz movie in my review of the musical based on that film? Whether or not you or I like the Noises Off movie, the fact of the matter is that it exists and has been seen or might be seen by many people who have seen the Jungle Theater production. Obviously you and I have different views on the best way to write a review, but I stand firm in my conviction that isolating theater and film into separate silos is artificial and contrary to the typical viewer’s experience.

  9. It seems that you and I have a fundamental disagreement that we’re not likely to ever resolve; fortunately there are many other theater reviewers to whom you can turn to read reviews more in the style of your liking. All I want to add here is that the reason I mentioned the Jesus Christ Superstar merchandise was to make a comment on the place of the show in consumer culture. I did not, for the record, receive a water bottle myself; I was mentioning a bottle held by another audience member. As for the supposed inappropriateness of mentioning the contents of the press kit, that’s always struck me as being similar to the moment in Dr. Strangelove when the cry is heard, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”

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