Could Noises Off at Phoenix Theatre Be Better Than It Seems?

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Good and useful news: Noises Off, originally scheduled to close Sunday, September 12, has been extended through Sunday, September 19, at Phoenix Theatre. It's a hot ticket -- and this is pretty much a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see crisp, impeccably executed farce at its best.

Now and then, I look at something that's wildly popular and say to myself, "If I'm not wholeheartedly enjoying myself, I'm probably having an off night." That's my position on this show. I recommend it with confidence, and that's only partly because many, many people whose opinions I value have had a roaring good time seeing it and I can see where they're coming from. (I do trust my instincts enough that I'll also share with you where I found the production lacking, back on opening night.)

Read a full review after the jump ...

Noises Off is more a play outside a play than a play within a play -- it's the story of what befalls a British theater troupe as they present an absolutely perfectly typically bad sex farce called Nothing On

Complicating matters a bit for some of us in the audience is the fact that Michael Frayn has, by his own admission, rewritten the script at least seven times, and at least once since the other two times I've seen it.

And the chronology of the three acts, which dictates how much of the 10-week tour of Nothing On we get to see, is quite different now, as is the ending. This all pretty much matters only if you've seen the play before. But a lot of people have, and I'm sure it's easier for them to enjoy it if they realize that when it starts to feel as though you're losing your mind, it isn't you. It's almost as though Frayn invited us to sit through the workshop process. Thanks, dude.

None of the above is Phoenix Theatre's fault -- it's the hand the playwright has dealt. One of this production's stars is Robert Andrew Kovach's two-story, two-sided, rotating set (pictured above), a set that depicts a stage set but also has to function as one, safe, sturdy, and functional on both sides, gorgeous, realistic, and a thrill to observe in action. In fact, the entire second act is what happens behind the scenes during Nothing On.

Casting/acting/directing failed me just a little with respect to the "outer" play -- the one that's about the theater company itself. I don't think Actors Theatre's Matthew Wiener, an excellent director, could have picked a better cast. Most are rightly acclaimed Valley stage veterans, and the few with whom I wasn't previously familiar do amazing work. Christopher Williams and Leann Dearing portray two types of actor who couldn't be more different but are equally annoying to work with (well, you know, if they were real).

What was lacking, for the most part, was a sense of relationships among human beings. Cathy Dresbach's character, Dotty, spends the whole show costumed as the frumpily comic housekeeper she plays in Nothing On, but Dotty herself captures the attentions of two younger men and inspires violent jealousy. It's simply hard to see, here, how that could happen. I'm afraid it's been awhile since Dresbach's played a part that called on her inner cougar. And that's just a shame in general.

Overall, the performers who don't also have a part in Nothing On tend to be more believable, which is understandable given how much sheer physical work and superhuman memorization is involved in the whole show.

Most of Noises Off's humor is expertly timed slapstick, and the setup is as breathtaking and admirable as the execution. Yes, you will laugh yourself sick, and at the same time you'll be floored by virtuoso turns everywhere you look, including Maren Mclean's three-dimensional tour de force in the typically thankless role of Belinda, the sweet, diplomatic colleague who (mostly) wants to smooth everything over and keep things grounded.

Noises Off continues in an extended run at Phoenix Theatre, 100 East McDowell Road, through Sunday, September 19, giving you an opportunity to score some of the super-good seats often snapped up by season ticketholders. Buy them here or call 602-254-2151.

Crip Tip of the Week:

The ramp into the University of Arizona College of Medicine's Virginia G. Piper Auditorium, 600 East Van Buren Street (a.k.a. the old Phoenix Union High School auditorium, which is neither the Virginia G. Piper Theater at Scottsdale Center for the Arts, the Virginia G. Piper Repertory Theater at Mesa Arts Center, nor the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at ASU Tempe), is on the building's northeast corner. If the front of the lobby is 6 o'clock, the ramp is basically at 2.

Although you'll walk, lurch, or roll right past it on the way in from where you most likely parked (if you or your companion drove), it's very easy to miss, especially at dusk. It's the sort of entrance you'll see signs directing you to after you've already gone several yards past it.

Once you're inside, an elevator makes the auditorium, restrooms, and most of the lobby easily accessible. The venue has comfy rolling chairs, a smooth, flat floor, and great acoustics. Have fun!

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