SALT LAKE CITY — It is often said that comedy is the hardest art form. It is also said the Noises Off is the funniest farce ever written. Assuming both suppositions are true, performing this show well is a tall order. While the Grand Theatre gets an A for effort on this one, this production falls short of Noises Off’s comedic classic potential.
With the script by Michael Frayn and an all-star film adaptation in the 1990’s, Noises Off has been pleasing audiences for 40 years. I love the perspective that this show provides: The audience first sees an exacerbated director’s attempt to corral his actors into a successful dress rehearsal shortly before opening night. Act II gives a backstage glimpse into the pandemonium and drama filled theatrics that have more goings on than the actual performance on stage. Act III returns to the stage view and still more mishaps of in the ill-prepared and disaster-riddled play within a play. Smart writing, slapstick scenes, and the insight into the details of creating a theatrical production gives Noises Off a timeless appeal.
Directed by Anne Stewart Mark, the Grand’s production got off to a sluggish start. Noises weren’t the only thing off, as the timing failed to land. The actors delivered their lines correctly, and there were no major flubs or specific misses. Instead, the performance was just flat; rather than laughing and feeling entertained, I was largely bored. Fortunately, the second and third acts saw a marked improvement, but it took a long time for this cast to fall into step. The first act could have benefited from better distinguishing the characters from their roles in the play within the play. More dynamic characterization would have livened up the first act and created a more believable and engaging dialogue.
For example, Taylor Mckay Barnes had some funny moments as Brooke, the bad actor playing Vicki. But it was not always clear if Barnes was portraying Brooke or Vicki. Brooke is still a ridiculous character, but if Brooke would have been played down a bit, Vicki’s over-the-top exaggerations would have been funnier in contrast, rather than persistently hitting so hard at the foolishness. Nevertheless, Barnes did well at adding to the character in the background, such as when meditating to “Itsy Bitsy Spider.”
The second act grew in entertainment value, and I enjoyed the backstage set designed by Kyle Becker for the amusing off stage scenes. As the comedy became more slapstick, the cast began to shine because the physical comedy was executed more believably and humorously than the more dialogue-centric first act. By the third act, the cast hit their stride, and the urgency of the chaos in the play’s action seemed to aid the cast’s delivery. The third act truly was funny. Both Nick Dunn as Gary and Michael Scott Johnson as Frederick had pronounced improvements in performance as the show went on. Dunn’s scene of falling down the stairs made me laugh the hardest of any in the show.
JJ Neward gave a standout performance as Dotty, and I was delighted when it was time to see more of Dotty. Neward adopted a convincing English dialect, and her character’s unraveling from rehearsals of the play at the beginning of the show to the final disastrous performance of the play within in the play seemed authentic and was comedic. Richard Scott as Selsdon had a gratifying presence as well. Scott had effective comedic timing, and I enjoyed how he portrayed the drunken, forgetful character shuffling about on stage. His was the most believable performance of the night.
While I liked Act III of Noises Off, it is not worth sitting through the bland first act and mediocre second act. Further, the production would benefit from a more rapid scene change after Act II or a second short intermission at that point. The cast and crew at the Grand Theatre clearly put in a lot of work and effort to mount Noises Off. While there were some shimmering moments—and the show progressively got better—I cannot get passed the deflated first act. If the director and cast could throw some of the vigor, chemistry, and energy from Act III into the start of the show, there is some real potential here. However, I cannot say that potential equates to a $27 ticket price.