When most people see a play, they usually don’t think much about what goes on behind the scenes. In the British farce “Noises Off,” which runs at Unity Theatre starting Thursday as the final play of its 2017-18 season, playwright Michael Frayn changes that by giving the audience an up-close look at backstage life.
Frayn originally got the idea for the play while standing backstage watching a farce he had written. He thought it was funnier from backstage than from the audience, which inspired him to write “Noises Off” in 1982. The play opened in London the same year and premiered on Broadway in 1983 to great success, earning an Olivier Award for Best New Comedy and a nomination for a Tony Award for Best Play.
The show features a touring company of actors as they rehearse and perform a farce called “Nothing On.” The demands of their play-within-a-play, including precisely timed entrances and exits, quick changes, and an abundance of sardines, combined with mounting tensions among the cast and crew, is a recipe for disaster for the characters but a source of constant laughs for audiences.
“I love the play,” said director George Brock, a long-time participant at Unity Theatre. “It’s a beautiful piece of theater. It’s very well-crafted in terms of the writing, and the characters are a lot of fun.”
“This is such a big, funny show,” said actor Justin O’Brien. “There’s a laugh just sitting there waiting every five to 10 seconds.” O’Brien, who will be making his fifth appearance at Unity, plays Lloyd, the director of Nothing On who tries to keep the show going as it spirals out of control.
One of the actors Lloyd must try to manage is Garry, one of the leads of “Nothing On,” who is played by Greg Cote. This will be Cote’s second play at Unity.
“The show itself is just fun. It’s an exciting show to work on,” said Cote.
Such a fast-paced comedy, however, is not without its difficulties.
“It’s one big giant challenge,” said Brock.
“It’s a show about the wheels falling off and just pressing forward,” said O’Brien. “But there’s so many traps where, in reality, the wheels do come off. So the challenge about this show is keeping the wheels on but allowing the audience to feel as though the wheels have come off.”
The set, with numerous doors and staircases, poses another challenge, according to Cote.
“The most challenging part is absolutely the physical toll that it takes on its actors. I haven’t counted exactly yet, but I think I run up and down the stairs definitely upwards of 20 times.”
Interestingly, the main backstage challenge highlighted in “Noises Off,” namely, the behind-the-scenes chaos, is not much of a problem for Unity’s production. Apart from a couple of fast-paced set changes, backstage is “not as chaotic,” said Tam Treviño, the show’s assistant stage manager. “I think the craziest we’ll be backstage is, ‘Oh, we need another plate of sardines.’”
Despite its challenges, the cast and crew are eager to share the comedy with audiences.
“People should come see the play because it’s one of those plays that everyone should have seen,” said Cote. “I think our production’s going to be really good. I think it is a genuine, amazing feat of theatrical prowess that we are presenting ‘Noises Off’ in as small a space as we are doing this.
“No one will ever see ‘Noises Off’ in a space this small ever again because it is a huge show and it’s usually done on huge stages and huge sets, and the ability of the scenic design and the direction and the technical team to be able to fit this into Unity’s main stage is incredible.”
“It makes you laugh. It’ll make your face hurt with joy,” said O’Brien. “You would have to be the biggest sourpuss to walk away from this production without a smile on your face. I really think it’s a show that some people will probably come back and watch a second time.”
“If you like theater,” said Brock. “If you have any experience with theater, if you’ve ever watched a play, you should see “Noises Off.”
The show runs Thursdays through Sundays through July 1. Tickets can be purchased online at tickets.unitybrenham.org or by calling the Unity Theatre box office at 979-830-8358.