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Joyful Noises

Michael Frayn, the author of Noises Off, on the pleasures of rewriting. logo
The cast of Noises Off
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
"There's a famous dictum that plays are not written, they're rewritten," Michael Frayn will cheerfully tell you. It is advice he has clearly taken to heart, certainly insofar as his blockbuster comedy Noises Off is concerned.

The thigh-slapping 1982 work was a hit the first time around in London and New York, wowed London audiences again last year, and is now poised to do the same in a Broadway revival with a cast that includes Patti LuPone, Peter Gallagher, Richard Easton, Faith Prince, and Edward Hibbert. All of which doesn't mean that Frayn didn't do a lot of tinkering before, during and after Noises Off was first written, rehearsed and premiered. He tinkered, all right--and he has continued to do so, almost to the present day.

He talks about all the application of elbow grease quite openly in the suite overlooking Central Park that he's taken while in town. He's in New York to attend rehearsals of both Noises and the road tour of his award-winning drama Copenhagen, which will feature Len Cariou and Mariette Hartley as Mr. and Mrs. Niels Bohr. "Most playwrights do a lot of playwriting because it's a very pragmatic business," he says. "No one ever knows until you actually try it out what an audience understands, what actually plays and what you don't need to say."

Relaxing in an open-collared white shirt, the lanky, graying, laugh-lined Frayn reports that "Noises Off was rewritten many times before we got to the rehearsals of the original prodcution. Michael Blakemore, the director, persuaded me to do an enormous amount of rewriting." Pre-opening toil is, of course, to be expected; but even after Noises Off bowed, Frayn and Blakemore kept at it. At one point, the original cast refused to learn any more endings. "I simply cannot remember how many endings there were, because I simply rewrote every day," Frayn recalls.

"Then we moved into the Savoy," the conscientious playwright tells me, "and, every time we changed casts, I rewrote the end of Act Three. When we came to America, I rewrote the ending for Washington." Why? "I was trying to make it better, trying to make it work, because it had been this kind of serious thing. Nobody wanted to see serious stuff in a farce, and the difficulty was in trying to end the farce reasonably without getting into the serious stuff. So then I rewrote again for New York."

Phew! And that's still not the end of it. "We decided to do the play again," Frayn says, referring now to the current revival that began at London's Royal National Theatre and is set to open here at the Brooks Atkinson on November 1. "In the meantime, I'd seen the play about a million times in various places. If you see it often, you change things, because you see the things that could get better. I knew I wanted to do a lot of work on it, and [current director] Jeremy Sams had much more radical ideas still. I once again worked with Jeremy, as with Michael Blakemore, line by line."

Michael Frayn
For those unfamiliar with the play, Noises Off is a first-rate farce about the production of a third-rate farce. The play is divided into three sections: The first is an early rehearsal viewed from a theater auditorium, the second a preview viewed from backstage, the third a look at a performance sometime along in the run. While sending up the farce within the farce, Frayn also has fun with the actors, who do and don't get on with one another. There are those who consider the middle section of the play, which is staged something like a silent ballet, to be among the funniest scenes ever written.

Of the recent changes, Frayn says that the most noticeable is the removal of the second intermission or (to use the Britishism) interval. "These days," he says, "no one will go out for a second interval. You just can't ask people to do it. It's difficult to ask them to go out for one interval! When they did Copenhagen in Paris, they said they were just going to run it straight through. I said, 'You can't do it. People will die. The audience and the cast won't be able to stand it.' They did it a couple of nights that way, then gave up and put the interval back."

Now comes the two-act Broadway revival of Noises Off. "I don't think we've done any changes for New York," Frayn says, but he takes a moment to think that over. "We may have changed the odd word, like Oxfam, which no one understands." (Oxfam is a British chain of secondhand stores.) Because the second act of Noises Off is so hilarious, one theory about Frayn's rewriting holds that he's had difficulty topping it in the third act, but the playwright rejects that notion. "Everyone says that," he allows. "I can tell you that the audience always laughs more in Act Three than in Act Two. It's just funnier, and it's the logical conclusion. But no one remembers it that way; everyone remembers the second act as being the funniest.

"Every time you change anything anywhere in the play, it changes everything else," Frayn continues. "If you change a line in Act One, that changes Act Two and Act Three. If you change a line or an action backstage in Act Two, that affects the action in the front of the stage--which affects the other two acts. It's like trying to make a statue out of a heap of jelly."

According to Frayn, Noises Off started life as a 15-minute piece. Ten years passed before the first rehearsal of the full-length version. So now, after all the effort, does he view the current text as a finished product? "I can't think of anything else I want to do to it at the moment," he says with a chuckle. "But, in four or five years' time, who knows?"

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