Karyn Gerhard is a senior editor at Alpha Books and an information addict looking for an adventure. This blog documents her explorations into of all those dusty corners of human culture that no one has bothered to clean in years.
A number of years ago, on a trip to London, I saw a play that was so hilarious to this day the thought of it makes me laugh like a maniac.
The show was Noises Off, a play within a play about a bumbling group of hammy thespians trying to put on a terrible British farce called Nothing On. The first act is the dress rehearsal of Act I, and it’s an utter disaster—missed cues, props that don’t work, people flubbing their lines, and several plates of sardines that drive everyone crazy. Every time the director stops to fix something, you learn another peccadillo of the group—fights, gossip, who’s sleeping with whom—and each character’s little foibles (like the leading man constantly asking about motivation for the silliest of actions, or the ditzy ingénue constantly losing her contacts).
The second act takes place backstage during Act I of a matinee performance. By this time everyone is at each other’s throats for one reason or another. The backstage craziness starts spilling onto the stage, making everything a mess, and the act ends with the curtain being brought down on utter chaos.
In the third act we see Act I from the front of the stage, during a performance about 10 weeks into the run. By now things backstage have disintegrated into nothing short of atomic warfare, and the performance is now absolute bedlam. The actors onstage try to cover up for the all of the mess, but all they manage to do is bungle the show even further.
Writing about slapstick gags is like trying to capture sunshine in a bottle, so I’m not even going to try to do it. Suffice to say that every single thing about that show was hysterical—I could barely breathe, I was laughing so hard. Hands down, the funniest show I’ve ever seen.
So when I heard, years later, that director Peter Bogdanovich had made Noises Off into a movie, I was skeptical at best. It was such a theater show—how could it possibly translate to film? Not only that, what actors these days could handle fast-paced slapstick farce well enough to pull it off? Still, I loved the show so much I went to see the movie opening night.
Boy, was I surprised.
First of all, it’s got one of the best ensemble casts ever put together: There’s Carol Burnett as Dottie, the once-famous, now-trying-to-revive-her-career grand dame of the stage; Michael Caine as Lloyd, the full-time director and part-time lothario who, shall we say, has his fingers in more than one woman’s pie; Denholm Elliott as Selsdon, the once-great-but-now-rummy-drunk actor whom everyone is trying to keep sober; Christopher Reeve as Freddy, the cotton-candy-brained leading man who can’t figure out his motivation to save his life; Marilu Henner as Belinda, the uber-cheerful actress and inveterate gossip; John Ritter as Garry, a twit who can’t finish a thought; Mark Linn-Baker as Tim, the hilariously overworked stage manager; Nicolette Sheridan as Brooke, the pretty but dumb-as-a-post ingénue who is having a fling with the director; and Julie Hagerty as Poppy, the assistant stage manager who’s knocked up by—you guessed it—the director.
The structure is still the same, but here the troupe is on an out-of-town tour with the show before taking it to Broadway. The first act is the dress rehearsal in Des Moines; the second takes place at a matinee in Miami; and the third at an evening performance in my home town, Cleveland. The movie still feels very much like a play—Bogdanovich (the director of one of my favorite films of all time, Paper Moon) keeps almost all of the action either on stage or back stage, so you get the same frantic, farcical pacing of the show.
Farce is one of the hardest things to pull off—not just for the comedy, but because it’s all about timing. (As Lloyd says, “doors and sardines. That’s what it’s all about, doors and sardines. Getting on, getting off. Getting the sardines on, getting the sardines off. That’s farce. That’s—that’s the theatre. That’s life.”) This cast’s timing is absolute perfection—not only with the doors and sardines, but with the comedy. Carol Burnett’s hilarious antics with that damned plate of sardines alone is worth the price of admission. But don’t worry—although it’s about a play, you don’t need to be theater junkie to enjoy it. It’s just balls-to-the-wall slapstick comedy at its best.
Noises Off is one of those movies that actually gets even funnier each time I see it; and no matter how bad of a day I’m having, watching it will put me in a great mood. So even if you don’t know a prop from a propeller, if you’re looking for nonsense of the highest order, check out Noises Off. I guarantee you’ll be falling out of your chair from the first plate of sardines.
What could be more fitting for watching a bunch of actors playing hammy actors than a ham casserole? (You didn’t honestly think I was going to make sardines, did you?) So whip up this tasty gratin and enjoy the show!
The delicate flavor of leek blends well with the Gruyère cheese in this layered casserole.
Variations: Substitute ham with leftover chicken or turkey.
From The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cooking for Two by Ellen Brown