Mise en abyme
Some 37 years ago, playwright Michael Frayn got the idea for his comedy Noises Off while standing in the wings, observing a performance of another farce he’d written. It struck Frayn that the show “was funnier from behind than in front.” So he resolved to write a script drawing equally from on-stage chaos and backstage shenanigans.
The result was Noises Off, which premiered 25 years ago, and now ranks as a classic. It’s a play-within-a-play, opening with a messy dress rehearsal of an utterly miserable sex farce, titled Nothing On. Then we witness the disastrous opening night, which rivals a massive pileup on a foggy freeway. This is shown first from backstage, then from the onstage perspective. Productions feature a huge two-story set—with a total of eight doors, frequently opening and slamming—that literally rotates between scenes. This UC Davis production also comes with a bogus playbill for Nothing On, including fake biographies of the actors.
The show spoofs the standard elements of the British sex farce—including a pretty girl (a bit short of brains) wearing nothing but underwear, an older woman having a fling, and guys whose pants fall down. There’s abundant sexual innuendo, mostly physical. Frayn also works in an older actor with a fondness for liquor (there’s a running hide-the-bottle subplot), several plates of sardines, and tangled phone cords.
Timing, of course, is critical. The UC Davis production is guided by visiting director Jules Aaron, a veteran, with credits in New York and Los Angeles. The climactic scenes are precisely staged—the whiskey bottle passes from hand to hand as a jealous boyfriend threatens a perceived rival with an axe, just as someone pops through a door, then slams it.
As much as we enjoyed the UC Davis version of Noises Off, it doesn’t quite match the deliriously funny Foothill Theatre performance a few years back. But this Davis production, with student actors (not all theater majors) comes pretty close to the bull’s eye. And the technical aspects (including faculty designer John Iacovelli’s set) are very handsome.