Noises Off "is inarguably one of the greatest contemporary farces," writes Guthrie Theater artistic director Joseph Haj in a program note.
Indeed, it seems almost impossible to imagine that Michael Frayn's 1982 play will ever be bested on its own terms, as an ingenious metatheatrical double-flip on a classic farce. Still, times change and Time's Up, and the Guthrie's incredibly lavish new production has a valedictory feel: one last whisk through these infamously unreliable doors before (let's hope) future comedy slots get filled by fresh voices.
A farce-within-a-farce, Noises Off takes us through the same scene three times as a weary troupe of British actors launch a tour of the fictional bedroom comedy Nothing On. We first meet them during a final tech rehearsal; then, in act two, we catch up with the company on the road and see the action unfold from backstage. Finally, we see the play again from the front, by this point easily imagining the chaos unfolding behind the scenes.
In a shamelessly showy maneuver that earned a round of opening-night applause in its own right, Kate Sutton-Johnson's set rotates right in front of us at the beginning of act two. On the towering McGuire Proscenium Stage, the two-story set is such a broad canvas for this busy play that you can't possibly catch everything that's happening as director Meredith McDonough whirls through plotlines — often with nearly all of the cast onstage at once.
Nathan Keepers plays Lloyd, the director of Nothing On. In contrast to many portrayals of Lloyd, Keepers is young-ish and impatient rather than old-ish and world-weary. That adds a welcome energy to the show, even if it makes his casual bullying play quite differently. The cast's other anchor is the invaluable Sally Wingert, as diva Dotty playing the housekeeper Mrs. Clackett.
A quintessential ensemble piece, Noises Off requires the kind of precise timing and total commitment that, ironically, its characters notably lack. McDonough's cast pull it off with flair, and they have particular fun with the fact that they're good actors playing actors who aren't all that great even before everything starts going wrong. Kate Loprest, in particular, has the audience howling as she soldiers on through her hilariously affected romp whether her scene partners are hitting their cues or not.
Other aspects of the play may inspire more grumbling than howling, and justifiably so. Much of the play's humor relies on tropes — including the trope of the philandering director. The play has ample sympathy for at least one of the women Lloyd exploited (a lovable Kimberly Chatterjee as Poppy the stage manager), but he sure doesn't, and Frayn seems to assume we'll empathize with the exasperated director anyway.
Then there's the sheik situation. Frayn is poking fun at the all-too-plausible notion that a farce like Nothing On would have a British businessman bearing so uncanny a resemblance to an Arab sheik that the two can literally be played by the same actor, but the endless gags involving makeshift substitutes for the sheik's royal robes sure don't feel like the play is laughing with Middle Easterners.
If you've never seen Noises Off, you've got to see it, and you're not going to get a better opportunity than this anytime soon. If you've seen it and enjoyed it, you might want to hit the Guthrie just to bask in the scope of this huge production with its very solid cast. That said, if they don't make 'em like this any more, that's for good reason.