Community theaters know that British sex farces are among the most durable plays they can put on, pleasing audiences with a familiar menu of double entendres, dropped pants, and settings that feature a remarkable number of doors. This kind of ribald comedy has a long history in England, as shown by the fact that the skillful director of Arena's Noises Off, Jonathan Munby, recently directed the Royal Shakespeare Company's comprehensive version of The Canterbury Tales. Times may change, but the basics of physical comedy remain much the same as they were in the days of Chaucer.
What raises Noises Off above the rest of the genre is the way Frayn extends the comic complications exponentially. The first act allows the audience to see the struggling actors in their final rehearsal for the farce-within-the-farce, Nothing On, while the second act takes viewers first backstage during a performance, then back out front as the relationships among cast members, and between the cast and the technical crew, fall apart during an extended tour of the English provinces.
While James Gale gives a creditable performance as Lloyd Dallas, the director doing his best to keep the show together, the brightest lights are Helen Carey as Dotty Otley, a one-time television star playing the dithery housekeeper, and Arena favorite Robert J. Prosky as Selsdon Mowbray, one of those aging actors who keeps subjecting people to stories of his past triumphs.
The rest of the ensemble includes Stephen Schnetzer as an inarticulate actor who can only finish his sentences if someone else has written them; Stephen F. Schmidt as an aspiring method actor constantly asking questions about his motivation; Lynnda Ferguson as the would-be voice of reason; Susan Lynskey as the put-upon assistant stage manager; and Jay Russell as the even more stressed stage manager and all-around utility man.
Scenic designer Alexander Dodge rises to the challenge of creating a set that is as presentable from the back as it is from the front, and funny when it needs to be. It sits on a turntable on the Kreeger Theater's thrust stage, bordered with a believably worn, semicircular stage curtain.
The program notes propose that Frayn wrote Noises Off as an anarchic response to the repression of Margaret Thatcher's England. This seems unlikely. Frayn is fascinated by scientific and mathematical principles, as in his play Copenhagen, which considers the personal and professional interrelationships between two physicists. The underlying motivation of Noises Off is more likely chaos theory (in simple terms, the many ways in which something can and will go wrong) than political advocacy.