Noises Off: A Play in Three Acts
I must begin with a confession: I have an annoying habit of over-thinking things (see, for example, this blog), including my perennial choice of first book of the year. But even if I do fear the impact that a dull- or, perish the thought, bad- opener will have on my next twelve months of literary conquests, it is an irrational apprehension with no satisfactory solution. All of this is a long-winded (see "over-thinking", above) way of saying that I picked up Michael Frayn's Noises Off on a whim after reading a summary of a cinematic adaptation, despite knowing little about theater. I do, however, deeply appreciate the concept of farce, the quintessential spirit of British humor, and the opportunity to pull back the curtain on an operation. Luckily, this was sufficient to allow me to enjoy Noises Off, a satirical look at the gradual, but ever-accelerating, unraveling of a small traveling theater company during a production of the imaginary play Nothing On.
I usually find myself slightly worried about my ability to adapt to the peculiarities of written drama, given the inherent differences between plays and prose, but if Frayn's work is any indication, these adjustments needn't be painful or even particularly noticeable. With a surplus of humorously stated stage directions and a group of supplementary program notes from its play-within-a-play, Noises Off works well solely as a printed text. Both the framing narrative and the fictional play are often laugh-out-loud hilarious, relying as they do on simple misunderstandings and ample helpings of dramatic irony. Nonetheless, much of the humor of Noises Off- and, indeed, of Nothing On within it- comes from the physical location of the actors and the fast-paced juggling of various props, which can be difficult to follow without a visual aid. And though this did detract a bit from my reading experience, it successfully piqued my interest in the play's visual aspects and ensured that I will keep an eye out for performances within a reasonably drivable radius.
Still, the play does have its limitations. The characters in both Noises Off and Nothing On are relatively cliché, a problem somewhat exacerbated by the fact that each of them is distinguished primarily by a different degree of aloofness rather than by any deeper traits. While this may result in part from Frayn's conscious decision to imitate and satirize the traditional bedroom farce, it doesn't help the reader make sense of one character's seemingly unprecedented descent into a sudden, jealous rage in Act Two; we have only the other characters' overly expository dialogue to guide us, where even a few bits of stray dialogue in Act One could have at least laid the barest foundation. This hasty characterization contributes to the overall farcical tone of the play, for both better (the play itself convincingly mirrors that which it engages) and worse (simplified characters are more difficult to fully appreciate, even when the intended reaction isn't wholly serious or straightforward).
Likewise, the plot's eventual descent into complete madness may be read either as a successful emulation of the general form or as a frustrating oversight. The general structure is excellent, as the reader views the interpersonal relationships as they begin to fray during a final rehearsal, rapidly deteriorate during one fateful matinee, and come completely unhinged in the (mercifully) final performance. Frayn's use of the play-within-a-play is utterly genius at times: by seamlessly weaving the entire first act of Nothing On into his own Act One, he ensures that readers fully appreciate each subsequent change, both subtle and entirely bizarre, that come later. The slapstick, who's-on-first (and, more pertinently, where-are-the-sardines) nature of Noises Off and Nothing On overlaps perfectly during Act Two, when readers helplessly watch the players simultaneously do their best to rescue a live performance while suffering from their own exaggerated (but no less hilarious) mishaps and misunderstandings backstage. Frayn's interweaving of actions in Noises Off and Nothing On is nothing short of brilliant, especially given the intricate, delicately poised network of comings and goings that drive the latter. The humor of Acts One and Two is almost effortless despite many moments of inherent silliness, marred only by the reader's inability to trace the physical locations of players and props without significant visual assistance.
It is a shame, then, that Noises Off goes slightly off the rails in its own third act. While the natural progression between the events of Act One and Act Two is appropriate and obvious- as is the series of mishaps that characterizes the fast-paced, blink-and-miss-it action of the middle-frame, the gap between Acts Two and Three is impossibly vast. Some clumsy dialogue clues readers into some newer points of tension, alongside those that linger from the first two acts, but it is not enough to sufficiently bridge the gap. Frayn's intentions are obvious, but the third act becomes increasingly detached from the first two, resulting in a climax that is somewhat painful to read given the effortless genius of the first two extended scenes. The play becomes somewhat preoccupied with itself and its farcical ambitions, to its immediate and unfortunate detriment, and the end simply doesn't hold up to the precedent established mere pages before. Nonetheless, the humor is accessible even for those who are unfamiliar with the intricacies of modern stage productions and the play has a timeless quality about it, holding up perfectly nearly forty years after it was first conceived. The first two acts of Noises Off are among the funniest pieces of fiction I can recall reading recently and, thankfully, carry the day despite a weak finale that is destined to disappoint.