At the end of Act I at Saturday's Clinton Area Showboat Theatre presentation of Noises Off, the couple sitting next to me said they weren't going to stay for the remainder of the play. (They, along with the rest of the audience, hadn't laughed all that much during the first portion of this comedy.) Apparently, however, the two changed their minds during intermission and did stay - and it was a good choice, as the show grew progressively funnier over the next two acts.
Noises Off is a farce centered around a play within the play. The first act shows the final dress rehearsal of a production titled Nothing on, during which it's made obvious that the actors are not ready for an audience. Some don't know their lines, others don't understand their characters' motivations, there are too many plates of sardines to contend with... . And then there's the problem of Selsdon (Tom McEleney), an actor who's often missing his dialogue cues, missing his entrances, and is sometimes just missing.
There's a lot going on in that first act, but it's only chuckle-worthy, at best. (Playwright Michael Frayn is English, and the Brits' humor does tend to be on the dry side.) Act I, however, isn't meant to be the funniest portion of the show; it's simply context for the farcical acts to follow.
Act II takes us backstage during a tension-filled performance of Nothing on, now a month into its run, and finds the performers attacking one another with an axe, handing flower bouquets to the wrong actresses, and passing a bottle of liquor around to keep it out of Selsdon's hands (and mouth). It's raucous fun, but could've been even more fun had director Shannan Osborn reigned in the extraneous movements of the actors, who employ a lot of exaggerated pantomime - which is appropriate - but frequently overemphasize their physical movements all at once, making it hard to know where to focus your attention. Act II is still funny, but I'm sure I missed other funny moments, moments lost to flailing arms and actors aimlessly running all over the stage.
The play's third act takes place during a Nothing on performance toward the end of its tour; characters are frazzled and fed up with each other, and it's showing in their performances. (The sardines, for instance, are never where they're supposed to be, causing all kinds of trouble.) With so many mistakes made on stage, the actors are forced to ad lib, and this utter mess of a play (within the play) drew the heartiest laughter from the Clinton audience.
Two actors in particular shine in the Showboat's cast. Jalayne Reiwerts is fantastically funny as the dotty actress Dotty. She approaches her bumbling character with a well-controlled, appropriately paced performance, drawing the most laughs of anyone on stage. And Jeni Noble, who was impressive as Mimi in the Showboat's Rent, is even more polished in Noises Off. While there's some hesitancy in many of the other actors' portrayals, Noble - in an arresting performance as the dim Brooke - is confident in her every line, movement, and joke.
The most extraordinary aspect of the show, however, is how the playing area is turned 180 degrees between acts. During the first intermission, designer C.W. Bardsher's Nothing on set is separated into six sections, which are then moved around each other, not unlike a slide puzzle, and reconnected with the back of the set now facing the audience. This happens again during the second intermission, but in reverse, and it's definitely worth staying in your seat for at least one of the play's breaks just to see the process for yourself.
While Noises Off gets off to a slow start in terms of humor, the jokes get better and better as it progresses. And while I wouldn't have blamed the couple next to me had they left at the first intermission, it would've been their loss. The final act had me, and the rest of the audience, in stitches.
For tickets and information, call (563)242-6760 or visit ClintonShowboat.org.
Thom White covers entertainment news for WQAD Quad Cities News 8.