OK, pay attention because this is going to get a little confusing. Inside Michael Frayn's three-act backstage comedy Noises Off is another play called Nothing On, one of those dreary British sex farces taking place in an English country house.
In Noises Off, we see the first act of Nothing On, performed three times. Act I is the final dress rehearsal before opening night. Act II is the same, only a month later and with the set turned around -- that is to say, we watch the play from backstage. Act III, we're back out front for the final performance.
Meanwhile, the wackiness of the characters in Nothing On is nothing compared to the theatrical lunacy taking place inside Noises Off. When the show opened in 1982, it was hailed as one of the funniest comedies of all time.
While I personally wouldn't go that far -- the third act is an unfortunate jumble -- I do admire the ingenuity of Frayn's concept, and find his precision in the writing of it amazing. The Brits have a tradition of concocting these clockwork-style comedies -- Alan Ayckbourn most famously -- and Frayn is certainly right up there.
I feel sorry for any company outrageously foolhardy enough to mount this show. The company must memorize three iterations of the same first act, played ever so slightly differently each time. And nailing the ruthless mechanics of farce style is a life-sucking process. Oh, and by the way, the entire set has to be rotated 180 degrees in 15 minutes, and then turned around again a little bit later.
So there is a lot to cheer about, considering how far along the Theatre Factory production is on this path -- especially factoring in all the rehearsals canceled due to this fakakta snow.
To put it another way, this production has all the elements in place, needing only a few more run-throughs to really take off. Director Ron Ferrara has done solid work grounding these characters in reality, making them much more than just stock comedy figures. Especially funny is Robyne Parrish as a ham actress who delivers all of her lines directly to the audience, and Matt Lamb's endlessly equivocating ham actor. But the whole cast turns in strong performances (on Scott Patrick Calhoon's remarkable set). I'd say that by the time you read this, this production will be first-rate.
Noises Off continues through Feb. 26. The Theatre Factory, Cavitt Avenue and Third Street, Trafford. 412-374-9200.