Review: Windy City Playhouse Stages Another Must-See with Noises Off

Last year, Windy City Playhouse, the storefront theater company on West Irving Park Road on the north side, debuted a production so impressive they’ve recently launched a new venue in the South Loop just to keep it going. Southern Gothic, an immersive experience at a 1960s birthday soiree among friends, may be a new (if less tacky) Tony & Tina’s Wedding, the show to see when company’s visiting from out of town, or on a perfectly entertaining date night.

With that show solidly established across town, the team at WCP debuts a new production this month that may just rival its predecessor’s success. Written by Michael Frayn, Noises Off is the mad-cap mess of a show-within-a-show that premiered in London in 1982. Then, it opened to rave reviews as one of the funniest productions in recent memory; more than 35 years later (and with a few rewrites to keep it fresh), it remains riotously funny, as the entire cast at WCP exhausts themselves in sheer comedic commitment across the show’s increasingly frenetic, fantastic three acts.

Noises Off
Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Directed by Scott Weinstein and populated by an ensemble cast so perfectly pieced together it’s impossible to pick a favorite, Noises Off begins as unassumingly as any storefront show might. Hang your coat and grab a cocktail in the Playhouse’s welcoming lobby and bar space, then make your way into a theater just half a dozen rows deep; don’t worry, they’ll explain at the box office how seating works for the second act, where you’ll move to the other side of the stage for the section of the play that takes place entirely backstage. Half the reason the show remains a staple (it enjoyed a Broadway revival as recently as 2015) is its masterful construction; each of the three acts centers around the first act of the play-within-the-play, Nothing On. That production is a goofy romp of a show set in an English country home where a maid housesits for a wealthy couple abroad in order to avoid income taxes. When an agent from their listing service pops over for a bit of a rendezvous with a ditzy client, the couple returns unexpectedly, a burglar breaks in, and everything goes more than a bit awry.

But that, of course, is just half the story. In fact, the show we’re watching is that of the troupe rehearsing the fluff piece, doing their best to prepare it for an upcoming regional tour. Amy J. Carle is Dotty, who plays the maid, and her first flub as she enters for Nothing On cues us in to the reality of things ahead. A voice over the P.A., later revealed to be director Lloyd Dallas (Mike Tepeli), chimes in with stage directions and a bit of gentle encouragement. It’s a moment that starts the proceedings off at just the right tenor; coming in too hot, we soon learn, would leave this talented group nowhere to go as the show, quite deliberately (and quite wonderfully) goes gloriously off track in the coming acts.

As they fumble through their final rehearsal, relationships and backstories are revealed in asides and interactions that zip by; Dotty is involved with Garry (Ryan McBride), for example, and Lloyd is navigating dalliances with both bombshell Brooke (Rochelle Therrien) and mild-mannered stage manager Poppy (Erica Bittner). Belinda (Amy Rubenstein, also WCP’s artistic director) and Frederick (Scott Duff) star as Nothing On‘s clueless homeowners, with Selsdon (Will Casey) as the burglar, at least when he’s sober and can remember his lines. Tim (Alexander Quiñones) is the exhausted stagehand and all-around understudy and…phew, I think that’s everyone. It’s a mainly monochromatic cast, and though one hopes for our city’s theaters to do better in this department, please don’t let that keep you from seeing an otherwise side-splitting production.

One can only imagine how brutal the actual rehearsals for Noises Off must’ve been, as by act two the show is more an exercise in precise choreography and physical comedy than anything. Keep an eye out (between guffaws, that is) for which actors break a sweat and when, as they all appear to do at some point in the show. It’s well earned, as they’re falling down stairs and swinging axes and darting this way and that; you’ll be forgiven if you don’t know exactly where to look when during the show’s more frantic moments. By the third act, you’ll know Nothing On a bit by heart, which makes the multi-car pile-up of a crash it devolves into even more hilarious. We know where it should go, so watching where it does go makes for a gleeful bit of rubber-necking.

Noises Off is now playing at Windy City Playhouse, 3014 W. Irving Park Road. More information, a performance schedule and tickets (extended through May 12) are all available here.

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Lisa Trifone