What's funny? High-density theories on the nature of humor have clogged the arteries of many a fathead. Henri Bergson thought humor resulted when human behavior began to resemble the predictable repetition of machines, while Sigmund Freud saw humor as sublimated aggression. Of course, Henri and Siggie were infamous for their lightning wit, whoopee cushions and sense of lighthearted fun.

Abandoning questions of why, it is easier to answer what makes people chuckle. Some find Beavis and Butt-head a scream, while to others, their humor is one of the best reasons for a trigger finger on the remote. Pulp Fiction leaves audiences howling--with laughter or revulsion. Is the difference between comedy and tragedy really only the point of view?

We can identify a few comedic elements that can elicit a laugh: when the familiar is exaggerated, when we identify incongruous juxtapositions, when we celebrate the clever word play of wit, when we recognize our own foibles (or those of the fools around us). But, mainly, one's sense of humor is as individual (and as defining) as a thumbprint. Tragedy is when it happens to you; comedy is when it happens to someone else.

Historically, there are a variety of comic styles in drama, from the lowly physical humor of farce to the elegant witticisms of Oscar Wilde. Satire is scintillating to the cynic and parody popular with the college crowd. The situation comedies of television have virtually ruined America's taste for subtlety, but from Aristophanes to Absolutely Fabulous, subtlety has never held much currency for the lover of the belly laugh. If you count yourself among the latter, you'll be elated to learn that Arizona Theatre Company has opened its new season auspiciously with a hilarious production of Michael Frayn's farce Noises Off. Frayn's 1982 romp through life onstage and backstage for a provincial British theatre troupe shows no signs of flagging, leading to a suspicion that the play has the timeless certainty of a classic farce in the tradition of Feydeau. The three acts offer fractured views of the rehearsal and performances of a silly play-within-a-play titled Nothing On, itself a comedy of manners with farcical ambitions. Here, everybody is addressed as "love" or "precious" or, in the case of the juvenile, "Garry, honey." In the first act, the many genuine tides of laughter that wash over the audience come from our watching a weary director trying to elicit a modicum of concentration from a giddy cast in the final throes of a dress rehearsal. Coincidentally, in a detail that has the ring of truth to all theatre buffs, it is also the performers' only technical rehearsal before an opening at the Grand Theatre in Weston-super-Mare.

The company is a heterogeneous collection of sympathetic, if inept, souls, rather typical of most casts. Their sole unifying characteristic is the inability to resist the siren's song to tread the boards. Dotty, the middle-aged, insouciant maid, cannot remember whether she is to take the plate of sardines offstage at her exit or leave it by the phone and take the newspaper off. The exasperated director, Lloyd, calls the correct sequence of events from the audience.

We feel privileged to witness the realistic details of production interrupt the smoothly artificial surface and inane circumstances of the British sex farce they are rehearsing. The audience vicariously experiences a sweet revenge on all such shallow contrivances that have wasted our time in a lifetime of theatregoing. Frederick, the earnest leading man, demands a motivation for taking a box of groceries with him into his study when he goes to review his mail, and the poverty of justifications produced by the desperate director and his eagerly helpful cast dramatizes the immense abyss between simple reality and the incredible logic of the stage.

Brooke, the ingnue who has clearly been cast to fulfill someone's concupiscent designs, addresses all her lines directly to the balcony and demonstrates her lissome physical grace with extravagant gestures, even in the most inappropriate circumstances. We have all seen this performance, and Frayn's depiction is deliciously, wickedly accurate. Garry, the verbally challenged juvenile who has trouble completing any sentence without "you know," is having a love affair with the older soubrette, Dotty.

We learn this from Belinda Blair, the leading lady, always there with the sympathetic shoulder, and therefore the best source of backstage skinny. Selsdon is the drunken old ham without which no theatre farce would be complete. The company is served by a stage manager apparently being dumped by the director in favor of the ingnue and by a bumbling backstage gofer who covers as carpenter, assistant stage manager and understudy.

Once we are familiar with the company and the play it is mauling, the second act takes us backstage during a matinee performance of the same first act a month later at the Theatre Royal in Goole. Now the playwright cashes in on the knowledge we have acquired, sending the action of the "play" upstage, while we see the nearly silent madcap maelstrom of backstage life during a performance. It is an occasion for hysterical pantomime, and ATC's artistic director, David Ira Goldstein, has made the most of it. The complex choreography of props, plots and peril required backstage offers a golden opportunity for hilarity, and Goldstein capitalizes on each opening, providing a feast of physical comedy that rocks the Herberger with laughter.

Unfortunately, by the third act, Frayn's comic invention begins to fray. We are again onstage, this time at a performance two months later at Stockton-on-Tees. The company and the play have disintegrated into shambles, with sardines underfoot, even tossed into the audience. Visual faux pas that allow unintended peeks into the backstage shenanigans are by now so commonplace that they lose their punch. Even the beleaguered cast can hardly care, and the audience begins to tire of laughing. Noises Off is probably half an hour too long, but even in the third act, there are a few good yuks, especially the sight gag of three climactic burglars. Certainly, Frayn has given us an enjoyable ride through the vicissitudes of backstage life without resorting to the tiresome mechanics of an Ayckbourn.

The whole cast is splendid, believable even in its grossest excesses. The ensemble's only imperfection is the tendency of a couple of actors to break up at their own ridiculousness, a forgivable and infectious flaw. I must single out the delightfully dry urbanity of Don Sparks as the long-suffering director and the inarticulate sincerity of Benjamin Livingston as "Garry, honey." Also outstanding is Diane Stilwell, reprising her role of Brooke from the Broadway production. Seemingly all legs, she is maddeningly funny in her search for the lost contact lens. Best of all is Bob Sorenson as the bumbling techie with the Buster Keaton-style deadpan reactions.

Jeff Thomson's perfect sets mock the onstage banality of the British drawing room, and provide a wonderful backstage arena for mayhem and mishap in the second act. A special bravo is reserved for David Barker, the movement specialist, for coaching this gifted cast through pratfalls, fights and pantomime with consummate aplomb.

What's funny? Noises Off!


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