There is nothing connecting the two topics of this post—Pi Day and deliberately bad acting—except that I noticed them on the same day recently. I was in New York City spending time with a friend. We were in Manhattan to see two shows. Both were comedies, and we laughed uproariously. In between the shows, we walked around the theater district and ate dinner.
As we walked around the theater district, we passed the Little Pie Company on 43rd Street. My friend really wanted to buy a pie, even though we were about to go eat a large dinner. I, too, was tempted. The pies looked wonderful. They had not only full-size pies, but little five-inch pies—just perfect for a late-night snack or for breakfast the next morning. The only reason we didn’t buy anything is because we didn’t want to carry our pies into the theater while we watched the evening show.
Inside the Little Pie Company was a sign reminding us that Pi Day was rapidly approaching. I’d forgotten about Pi Day. But this year it is as perfect as Pi Day comes. Today is, after all, 3-14-16, which is as close to 3.14159… as the calendar can get.
So Happy Pi Day.
One of the plays we saw was Noises Off, a farce by Michael Frayn. Act I takes place as an acting company is doing the dress rehearsal of a play that will open that night. The actors in the play within the play are really bad. They don’t know their lines or their marks or how to handle their props. Act II takes place a month later, while they are touring. The setting is backstage while the play is going on, and the audience sees how the interpersonal relationships between the actors have deteriorated, with disastrous effects on their ability to perform. Act III is on the final leg of the tour, when the play is beyond salvaging, the script is abandoned, and the more capable actors try to ad lib their way through to some sort of end.
What makes Noises Off remarkable is that the cast’s bad acting in the play within a play is so good. One character visibly counts her steps and the seconds between her lines—she has memorized her role and cannot deviate. Another can deliver his lines capably but cannot speak a coherent sentence that isn’t in the script. Another seems to be in the early stages of dementia and forgets lines, props, and everything but her own ego. There’s a character who’s a drunk. The director is having affairs with two female cast members. And, oh, there’s the guy who gets nose bleeds. The audience gets sucked into these personalities and their foibles. We know why the actors are failing, we wait for them to fail, and we laugh with glee when it happens.
I realized as I watched that it is hard to be bad. We all work to be good at what we do. We want to improve. It is equally difficult to be deliberately bad. To be consistently bad. To be consistent at anything takes work. It is as difficult to deliberately miss a tennis serve in the same way every time as it is to plant the ball in a particular corner of the court.
These actors had to miss their cues in the same way every time, with the same precise timing as if they had been acrobats catching each other without a net. It was as impressive a performance of ineptness as I have ever seen.
So I had the perfect Pi Day and the perfect bad play within a play both revealed to me on the same day.
I am sorry to say that Noises Off just closed on Broadway, but if you ever have a chance to see it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. In its perfect imperfection. (My son said he enjoyed the movie.)
When have you been impressed with perfection or imperfection?