DURING A PANEL a few months ago, Third Rail Artistic Director Scott Yarbrough explained why he made the surprising decision to produce Noises Off: Third Rail, Yarbrough said bluntly, needs to broaden its audience, and it doesn't get much more crowd-pleasing than Noises Off.
At first gloss, this community-theater chestnut seems like a too-conventional choice for a company whose shows typically skew dark. It's worth remembering, though, that Third Rail has pound-for-pound one of the funniest ensembles in town: Damon Kupper, Isaac Lamb, and Maureen Porter are all hilarious, and the cast is rounded out by some truly delightful performances from Amy Newman and Spencer Conway. These people are funny, and Noises Off gives them a chance to show it. And after the dreary realism of Third Rail's last show, Sweet and Sad (it's about 9/11!), a pratfall-heavy farce makes a nice change of pace.
If you've some how managed to live in ignorance of Noises Off... congratulations. Here's a thumbnail: A touring British company is producing a show called Nothing On, a tired comedy with humor that is heavily dependent on intermittent pantlessness and jokes about sardines. Behind the scenes, the company members juggle romantic entanglements and misunderstandings, which gradually seep into the show itself. (Also, more sardines and more pantlessness.) The first act is a dress rehearsal in which a dour director (Isaac Lamb) bullies his cast through their lines; then a backstage perspective is offered, as the cast suffers behind-the-scenes meltdowns during a show; and finally, there's a catastrophic performance in which everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. [Cue laugh track.]
I suspect I caught the show on an off night—the pace felt a bit sluggish, as though everyone was still shaking off post-opening-night hangovers (just a guess). The show runs long, thanks in part to intermissions between each act, during which the crew fully rotates the impressive set to present first the front of the stage, and then the back. (It's very easy to imagine the behind-the-scenes activity of this production mirroring the chaos onstage.) But I imagine it will hit its stride soon enough—this cast is too good not to—which means the only questions that remain are: Do you think falling down is funny? How about sardines, and people losing their pants? If you answered yes, have I got the show for you.