Sunday, February 7, 2010

Noises Off

Year 2, Day 37 - 2/6/10 - Movie #402

BEFORE: Just a couple more films about stage-work, then I'm on to a new topic. I feel qualified to judge this film, since in another life (commonly known as "high school") I had speaking roles in a number of community theater productions - I played Uncle Max in "The Sound of Music", Lazar Wolfe in "Fiddler on the Roof", the town mayor in "Bye Bye Birdie", and the factory owner in "The Pajama Game". My toughest challenge was probably playing Chief Sitting Bull in "Annie Get Your Gun", since I had to do that without my glasses, and was blind as a bat the whole time.

THE PLOT: A travelling theater group find so much action going on behind-the-scenes, they almost ruin the performances.

AFTER: Well, it's clearly meant to be the ultimate "play-within-a-play" storyline. The movie shows us Act 1 of a bedroom farce titled "Nothing On", and we learn a bit about the backstage antics of the cast and crew - who's in a relationship with who, who tends to drink a little too much, and who has trouble memorizing their lines and stage directions. The play's director (Michael Caine) runs the cast through their final tech rehearsal, stopping the action whenever someone flubs a line or mishandles a prop.

Then it's on to opening night, and things go relatively smoothly, but it's just the calm before the storm - the two-act play is set in the central room of a British country-house, with many doors leading to other rooms and the outside. The story involves a lot of slamming doors, mistaken identities, and carefully placed props, and the timing of everything is absolutely critical.

The action cuts to a week later, and the play is on tour, as the director makes a surprise visit to the production in Miami, and all heck breaks loose. By now a number of mishaps have insured that all of the love affairs among the cast and crew are in jeopardy, and people aren't talking to each other, except on stage. The cast members with drinking problems are overindulging, feelings are getting hurt, and the production's starting to get a little sloppy.

The key to the movie (and one presumes, the stage play this is based on), is that we never actually get to see the second act of the play - we just see Act 1 again and again, and since we saw the tech rehearsal, we the audience know the play by heart already. So the third time we see it, it's mainly from the rear of the set-piece, and from the back we see the actors waiting for their cues - by now they're literally at each other's throats, whacking each other with props, in between belts from a liquor bottle, nearly ruining the on-stage action several times. Since the actors need to remain quiet backstage, the action devolves into a loose silent slapstick, which of course is the lowest rung on the comedy ladder.

By the time the production hits Cleveland, it's an outright disaster. A drunk actress misplaces a prop-plate of sardines and a prop phone, and from there it's a domino effect, causing flubbed lines that cast members can't recover from, props that end up in the wrong place, leading to lines and ultimately scenes that make absolutely no sense. So really it's a double-farce.

Starring Carol Burnett, John Ritter, Christopher Reeve, Marilu Henner, Nicolette Sheridan, Denholm Elliott, Mark-Linn Baker and Julie Hagerty. It's good for a few chuckles, but tempered by the chilling fact that a number of the cast members are deceased - I had the good fortune to meet John Ritter at the Sundance Festival in 1998, he came to our screening and was nice enough to pose for a picture with me.

RATING: 5 out of 10 whiskey bottles

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