Farce may be the most demanding theatrical genre, because it requires mechanical precision and split-second timing, in a cycle of events that must seem to spiral out of control, without ever actually doing so. Here, an amazing cast seems to defy the laws of physics, accelerating beyond the speed of light at times, in their slavish devotion to the perfection of chaos.
I thought Jack Abels, playing the actor cast as a tax-dodging playwright, might take the prize for physical comedyuntil Ed Cole, playing the actor playing a young rake, went stumbling backward down a long, dog-leg staircase (Mr. Cole also has the keenest sense of comedic outrage, jealousy and panic in the cast). Chrissy Young throws herself into the satirical role of his beautiful bimbo, in a fine burlesque of Burlesque, and Tracy Murphy keeps herself in the background with a masterfully brittle tremor (as the actress playing the writer's wife) till things really start going off-track.
There are people who don't like "backstage comedies," but I defy anyone to look down on the literal backstage comedy of act two in this incarnation. For sheer knockabout ballet, once the big set has been turned around, the actors "behind the scenes" seem to do the impossible about every fifteen seconds in a nearly silent comedy that's astonishing and (for all I know) highly dangerous.
Tom Bell, a larger-than-life actor with a watchmaker's attention to detail, plays the alcoholic, undependable actor who (in turn) plays the comical burglar-giving us two distinctly different parts in the bargain: as Selsdon Mowbray (the actor) he's pathologically apologetic and childlike (which is horrifying, because it always excuses him from whatever infraction he's just committed); and as the Burglar, he's a straight-out baggy pants musical hall professional. And Reynard Fox, as the on-stage director, combines the haughtiness familiar to any theater-person, with the requisite panic as things veer out madly of control.
But the actual director, Mr. Kelly, does something very interesting here: he keeps the performances fairly low-key, which is to say, the audience must draw closer and closer to see some of the characterizations in detail. And as a result, when the comedy becomes explosive, it practically leaves powder burns on our faces. Jadienne Nolan, as the actress playing the housekeeper, dawdles pleasantly along out front, and is quite funny in the opening scene (as the exhausted and confused actress), where Mr. Fox bedevils her with the usual myriad details of any old farce; and then (with juts as much ferocity as any of the others) she kicks it into high gear when the second act blasts off "back stage." But it's a little strange to endure the quiet before the storm, as her "housekeeper" character seems a bit wan, probably because of that contrast the director is trying to set up.
At the end of it all, the script does sort of come to a full stop about a minute or two before the curtain, and the "bows" are hampered by shout-out lines from each cast member, which interrupt the applause. But (short of stealing the "reenactment finale" from Lend Me a Tenor) I'm not sure if anything can or should be done about that. That second act whirlwind alone is worth the price of admission.
Noises Off through March 28, 2010 at the new South Campus of Washington University, 6501 Clayton Rd., St. Louis 63117, across from the Esquire Theater. Parking is on the west end of the property, the former CBC high school. For information call (314) 721-9228 or visit them online at www.placeseveryone.org.