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‘Noises Off’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 20, 1992

Michael Frayn's "Noises Off" was a witty, slapsticky, quintessentially British play-within-a-play, about a traveling stage show in which everything that could go wrong did. Now, along comes "Noises Off," Touchstone Pictures' Americanized version, which tempts disaster at every turn.

Instead of British performers in a touring show headed for imminent disaster, the movie's about a troupe of American stage actors in a touring show that's bound for Broadway. The cast has only two Brits -- Michael Caine and Denholm Elliott. It features five TV sitcom or soap actors, including Carol Burnett, John Ritter and Marilu Henner. It even has Christopher Reeve, possibly the dullest actor of our time. To flirt further with box-office death, the movie's directed by Peter Bogdanovich, whose last success was "The Last Picture Show" in 1971.

Yet the movie, when it finally gets going, is funny. At times it's hysterical. The great discovery about "Noises Off" is how tried and tested Frayn's basic formula is. The physical, verbal and situation comedy is universal, no matter who the performers. What counts in this ensemble production is the collective choreography, the great farce machine. In the movie, everyone, Reeve included, more than plays his part.

Burnt-out stage director Caine, his Valium always close at hand, is in charge of a touring British sex farce called "Nothing On." Not only must he survive a schedule that includes Des Moines, Cleveland and countless other boonie stops, he has to monitor a cast of bickerers, incompetents, whiners and buffoons.

As the movie opens, the cast is going through a tense "tech rehearsal" just hours before their Des Moines debut. Housekeeper Burnett can't remember to take the plate of sardines offstage and leave the phone onstage. Bimbo secretary Nicolette Sheridan keeps losing a contact lens. Hard-of-hearing, usually besotted Elliott keeps missing his cue. Reeve wants to know his precise motivation for clutching a bag of groceries . . .

"And on we merrily go," says an exasperated Caine, after yet another petty interruption.

Actually, this rehearsal is the last opportunity to see how "Nothing On" should really play -- sort of. When one cog goes loose in this farce -- from a missing plate of sardines to a missed cue -- everything goes wrong. Everything, of course, does. "Nothing On" becomes a roadshow of missed entrances, jammed stage doors and backstage warfare. When one actor is angry at another, the vengeful possibilities are endless. Ritter comes onstage to find his shoelaces have been tied together. After a backstage fight, Burnett is propelled onstage by an unidentified foot; two characters dressed as Arab sheiks find their robes are attached.

The beginning's a little slow, and all those bad shows start to blur after a while. Seen one catastrophe, seen 'em all. Also, the ending's a mundane, contrived affair, an entirely inappropriate conclusion to this theatrical world of ongoing failure. But there's more than enough laughter to ignore that. "Noises," with the help of Bogdanovich and crew, brings back the ageless joy of well-timed slapstick.

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