Hilarious Noises Off Tuned to Perfection at NJST
The setting of the play is the set of the Brent country house for the provincial tour of Nothing On as it stands consecutively on the stage of three provincial English theatres in January, February and April. In Nothing On, a real estate agent (Roger) brings a conquest (Vicki) to the Brent house, which he represents as his own, for an assignation. It is the afternoon off for the housekeeper (Mrs. Clackett), and the homeowners (Philip and Flavia) are in Spain to qualify for tax exemption. When Roger arrives with Vicki, the housekeeper is still there, about to enjoy a plate of sardines. After Vicki undresses, the Brents secretively arrive home, a philosophical burglar crashes through a window, and, lastly, an Arab sheikh arrives for his appointment with Roger.
Act one depicts the frenetic dress rehearsal for Nothing On on the night before the tour opening. Director and womanizer Lloyd Douglas has his hands full as his under-rehearsed and hapless cast forget their lines, misplace their props, mistime their entrances, and question his instructions ("Why would I carry the plate of sardines outside?"). The fact that Douglas is bedding down with both the actress playing Vicki and the assistant stage manager only adds to his misery.
For act two, the set revolves 180 degrees, and we get to see Nothing On from the back of the set. It is a matinee about a month later. Douglas is taking advantage of a break from directing Richard III (his Richard "has gone down with a back problem") to resume his dalliance with Vicki. We get to see a mistake-prone but earnest performance by the cast (which has developed fissures and romantic rivalries) and their pre-entrance and post-exit machinations backstage. Having seen the play from "out front," it is riotous to see a richly farcical account of behavior which, as a rule, is hidden from the audience. It is a terrific treat for theatre devotees.
Act three brings us the disastrous final performance of the three month tour. The cast is burnt out, hostilities rage, and sabotage abounds as Noises Off and Nothing On end in comic mayhem.
As the curtain rises on the dress rehearsal of Nothing On (a figure of speech, as there is no curtain, my only quibble about this production), Harriet Harris portraying Dotty Otley (the housekeeper, Mrs. Clackett) gets the play off to a grand start as Dotty struggles with her props and lines. Harris subtly delineates the differences between the simple housekeeper and the addled under-pressure and concerned actress who has put up the financing for the tour. Andrew Weems as director Lloyd Douglas gets to deliver and makes the most of playwright Michael Frayn's most trenchant lines.
Laila Robins plays actress Belinda Blair (Flavia) with a cool, above the fray sophistication which makes extremely funny the newly surfaced hostility she shows while discombobulating the cast during the final performance of Nothing On. Katie Fabel is appropriately hostile as actress Brooke Ashton (Vicki), saving her friendlier side for Brooke's stage role. Praise is also due to Scott Barrow as actor Garry Lejeune (Roger) and Matt Bradford Sullivan as actor Frederick Fellowes (Philip), each of whom expertly imperils life and limb to make us laugh. Edmond Genest plays the broadly written role of elderly, alcoholic actor Selsdon Mowbray (Burglar) with comic gusto. Jack Moran and Jessica Ires Morris as the stage managers bring appealing freshness and a light comic touch to their roles.
With Noises Off, playwright Michael Frayn has gone beyond writing a play within a play to creating a construct of two plays being performed simultaneously. Frayn, who is also known for his high brow "serious" plays (i.e., Copenhagen, Benefactors, Democracy) has so filled Noises Off with tightly engineered farcical humor that the wit, wisdom and grace of his dialogue are often overlooked. I was particularly taken with the grace and imagery of director Lloyd Dallas' dress rehearsal observation that he could feel "time sliding irrevocably into the past".
Most impressive is the direction of Paul Mullins. The speed, clarity and precision of this production are wonders to behold. Although I will readily admit that I could not keep up with every comic bit and twist and turn in the plot (pity the poor critic who has to take his eye off the stage to make notes), there is a clarity to the proceedings which exceeds that of any of the other productions of Noises Off that I have seen. Charlie Calvert's cozy set has eight doors on two levels plus a curtained entranceway to the attic, all of which are employed in classic farcical fashion.
This English farce was first produced in London in 1982. When it came to Broadway in 1983 with an American cast, it repeated its London success. It has since become a staple in regional theatres and enjoyed West End and Broadway revivals. As frightfully complex and difficult to perform as it appears to be, Noises Off seems to always elicit much laughter. I have seen several productions of Noises Off, including its first Broadway production. The precision and clarity of this Paul Mullins directed production make it the most hilarious incarnation of Noises Off that I have yet seen.
Noises Off continues performances (Tuesday-Wednesday 7:30 p.m./ Thursday-Saturday 8 p.m./ Saturday-Sunday 2 p.m./ Sunday 7:30 p.m. – except 5/24) through August 30, 2009 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600 , online: www.shakespeareNJ.org.
Noises Off by Michael Frayn; directed by Paul Mullins