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Dallas resounds with rowdy, clever `Noises Off'

In a striking playhouse designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the Dallas Theater Company has opened its 28th season with an impressive display of virtuoso slapstick. ``Noises Off'' -- an ingenious British farce by Michael Frayn that was a hit on London's West End and Broadway -- is just made for the supercharged comic action that director Ken Bryant and his company bring to it, which, in its manic energy, is beyond the call of farcical duty.

With many neatly crafted twists, ``Noises Off'' follows the desperate history of a witless sex comedy called ``Nothing On'' as staged by a seedy British touring company. Each of the three acts of ``Noises Off'' shows us the same first act of ``Nothing On'' from a different vantage point. Act I depicts a crisis-ridden dress rehearsal whose frazzled director is trying to nip a thousand embryonic disasters in the bud. It's a slightly laborious process designed to let us know exactly what's supposed to happen in ``Nothing On,'' so that later on we can appreciate, in exquisite and knowing detail, its comic disintegration.

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Later we get a backstage view of the same first act while the show is on tour, and by now the lives of the troupe -- which are as ludicrous and tawdry as anything on stage -- are echoing the silly plot of ``Nothing On.'' Jealous rages and other emotional explosions lead to near mayhem backstage as the small-time troupe carries on wild but mostly silent personal antics that dovetail, with stunning precision, into the slamming doors and breathless exits and entrances of ``Nothing On.'' That title, a phrase used in scripts calling for sound effects offstage, takes on an ironic twist when the backstage commotion is heard out front -- sometimes synchronizing with the sounds called for in the script.

The final act of ``Noises Off'' shows the effects of all this from the British audience's viewpoint, as the first act of that inane comedy is turned into a theatrical debacle of epic proportions by the individual feuds of the troupe. It's so bad that they have to improvise through such lunatic mishaps as three burglars appearing on stage instead of the one who is supposed to.

If by now it has become hard to distinguish reality from ``Nothing On,'' this is probably part of an absurdist vision lying well beneath the frenzied escapades, during which the two have been merging. They are separate in Act I, when ``Nothing On'' is still a distinct entity being staged by hapless thespians, but by Act III the company's personal troubles have reached from backstage to engulf the show itself, and you can read a message -- a bit dimly perhaps -- that life is a theatrical routine carried out in the very teeth of a crumbling world.

The character of the original target of the play -- a peculiarly British genre of sex comedy epitomized by ``Nothing On'' -- is not really captured in this production. As a result, it misses the historical resonance and context -- the pointedness -- that specificity gives any slapstick routine.

What it gains, though, is well worth the trade: a raucous universality, delivered with such speed and deftness that it's hard at times to take it all in. The company finds its own potent comic values in the blizzard of slapstick effects. Some audience members told me afterward they knew nothing of the particular theatrical form ``Noises Off'' was spoofing. But it didn't matter. What they were roaring at throughout this show was what people have been laughing at for a few thousands years: the comedy of the human predicament.

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