Pittsburgh Public Theater is taking on classic backstage farce 'Noises Off'
“Making people laugh is a good thing,” Don Stephenson says.
“To be able to come to the theater for a few hours and laugh your head off is good,” says Stephenson, who is directing Michael Frayn's “Noises Off,” the final production of the Pittsburgh Public Theater's 2013-14 season.
“It's one of the great, great farces,” he says.
First staged in London in 1982 and on Broadway in 1983, “Noises Off” follows a troupe of actors rehearsing and then performing a sex farce called “Nothing On” during a three-month tour of theaters in towns such as Weston-super-Mare and Stockton-on-Tees.
As in any good farce, people complicate their lives and others' by inventing false identities and getting caught in compromising, often misinterpreted situations. Doors slam, suitcases appear and disappear and plates of sardines turn up in all the wrong places.
But Frayn adds an additional twist to the proceedings.
Act 1 finds the actors onstage as they struggle through Act 1 of the play's final rehearsal.
Act 2 takes place a month later. But the audience watches the silent interactions that take place among the actors backstage while Act 1 of “Nothing On” proceeds — heard, but not seen — onstage. The final act of “Noises Off” returns the audiences' view to the set of “Nothing On” for the show's final chaotic performance.
When it played on Broadway, Newsday critic Allan Wallach observed, “It's possible that a funnier comedy than ‘Noises Off' once played on Broadway, but I don't know what it could have been.”
“The show is a love letter to people in show biz, the people who do it,” Stephenson says. “This show is all about those people — the people backstage and the people onstage.”
The characters should be instantly recognizable to anyone who follows theater or has performed in theater at any level — the performer past his or her prime who can't remember simple but crucial stage business like hanging up a phone; the authoritative, all-business stage manager; the pretty but empty-headed starlet; the actor who frets endlessly over his motivation for every line or action.
“We know them all,” Stephenson says. “Go to any theater, and they are there.”
But even the best script needs actors and other creative people to bring them to life. And while making people laugh may be a good thing, it's not simple.
“The show is a combination of everyone working together — the prop person, the actors, the director — to make a scene work right and to get a laugh,” he says. “We are like a small orchestra. We all have to start on the same note. If one person makes a mistake, the whole thing collapses.”
In farce, it's particularly important to get the technical bits right: how to get the phone cord to stretch around the leg of sofa without snagging or making sure no one gets hurt with a bit of physical business.
“It takes a lot of preparation to make (something look like) a mistake. You can spend 40 minutes on how to grab a bag,” he says. “Everything is planned meticulously to make it look like it isn't.”
Inside the theater
Insiders have long known that what goes on backstage is often far more dramatic, comedic and/or entertaining than the production taking place onstage.
Pair that with the exhortation to authors and playwrights to write what they know best, and you may have an explanation for why plays and musicals set behind the scenes are popular.
Michael Frayn's “Noises Off” is one of the best. Here's some more:
• “Bullets Over Broadway The Musical.” Woody Allen wrote the script for this recently opened Broadway musical adaptation of his movie. The story takes place in the 1920s as an idealistic aspiring playwright compromises his principles when a gangster offers to invest in the play. In exchange, the mobster wants a part for his untalented girlfriend. What follows is an exploration of how far artists are willing to go to achieve their artistic ambitions.
• “Kiss Me, Kate.” A musical with score by Cole Porter, it revolves around the love-hate relationship between a divorced couple forced to reunite for a production of “The Taming of the Shrew.” The audience watches as real-life emotions and actions leak into their onstage performances as Petruchio and Kate.
• “Star Quality.” Written by Noel Coward and adapted by Christopher Luscombe, “Star Quality” offers a delightfully cynical and funny look at the politics, treachery, deception and glamour that unfolds during the creation of a new production in London's West End.
• “Rough Crossing.” Tom Stoppard's adaptation of a classic Ferenc Molnar farce takes place on an ocean liner crossing the Atlantic. As the ship travels to New York City, the co-authors, composer and cast members rush to finish the script and rehearse the play in anticipation of its Broadway opening.
• “Curtains.” This backstage murder mystery, with a score by John Kander and Fred Ebb, combines a musical whodunit with a scenes from “Robbin' Hood,” a new musical in out-of-town tryouts. Scenes alternate between the musical evolving onstage and its links to the crime committed backstage as the detective, a theater fan, finds himself getting involved with the performers, the creative team and the production.
• “Light Up the Sky.” Moss Hart's comedy begins as the cast and creative team prepare to open a Broadway-bound play by an emerging writer that's meant to revolutionize the American theater. What follows is a look at the reactions of this highly volatile group when their endeavor looks more and more like a flop.
• “The Producers.” Mel Brook's musical comedy is about a Broadway producer with a string of flops who takes an alternate path to financial success. Testing out an accountant's theory that he could make more money with a flop than he would with a hit, Max Bialystock sets out to find a show that's guaranteed to fail.
• “Room Service.” John Murray and Allan Boretz's farce follows a Broadway producer and a trio of actors attempting to postpone eviction from their hotel room while they put together the financing for a new play they believe will be a sure hit. When the play's backer asks for his money back, the producer engages in increasingly desperate and complicated maneuvers to get the play to opening night.