Nobody loves farce more than the British, whether it’s plays like No Sex Please, We’re British, or Joe Orton’s What The Butler Saw, or Alan Ayckbourn’s Taking Steps, or any of Ray Cooney’s frantically-paced comic gems (Move Over Mrs. Markham, Run For Your Wife, etc.) These British farces are so popular that they not only get major professional productions throughout the world, they have also become a staple of community theaters, where unfortunately they don’t always get the caliber of actors required.  Only performers with a) total command of their lines, b) perfect coming timing, and c) absolute readiness to enter and exit on cue can do these comedies justice.

Imagine, therefore, a troupe of actors with d) none of the above getting ready for an opening night.  Lines will be forgotten, timing will be off, cues will be missed, and the entire production an absolute mess.  Certainly not something you’d pay to see, right?

Wrong—if the play in question is Noises Off and the actors are the fictional band of second-rate talent that populate Michael Frayn’s hilarious look at probably the worst production ever of a British farce.

A smash hit on London’s West End and on Broadway, Noises Off has become a perennial audience favorite, and one of the most frequently revived British farces.  You can be sure that there are community theater productions of Noises Off whose actors are at pretty much the same level as those in Frayn’s script and I dread to think how unfunny those productions might be. It takes world-class actors with world-class timing to make Noises Off work its comic wonders, and this is precisely what audiences at South Coast Repertory are getting in an absolutely perfect revival of possibly the most chaotic farce ever staged.

Noises Off is divided into three acts, with two intermissions absolutely de rigueur. Act One is the final dress rehearsal of Nothing On, the play-within-a-play, in which everything seems to go wrong.  “Everything,” it turns out, is just a fraction of what goes wrong in Act Two, in which the audience gets to see what’s happening backstage during a performance of the play a month later.  In Act Three, at the tail end of Nothing On’s disastrous tour through the provinces, we once again observe the goings on from the audience’s point of view, and witness a production which has gone from bad to worse to complete shambles.  Expect to be laughing so hard it hurts.

The cast assembled by master comedy director Art Manke (Taking Steps) is out-and-out brilliant at the demands of farce—razor-sharp timing, athletic physical comedy, and outrageous characterizations.

Kaleo Griffith plays Lloyd Dallas, Nothing On’s temperamental director, steadily growing more and more harried as his cast of misfits makes goof after goof.

Kandis Chappell is Dotty Otley, who can’t seem to remember when to bring the sardines on, when to take the newspaper off, when to put the phone receiver down…  The list goes on and on.

Bill Brochtrup portrays Garry Lejeune, a leading man with a bit of a stuttering problem, growingly increasingly suspicious of paramour Dotty’s relationship with castmate Frederick Fellowes.

Timothy Landfield is Frederick, a character actor who cannot move a box from here to there without examining his “motivation,” and who is all too susceptible to nosebleeds and dropped drawers.

Nancy Bell plays Belinda Blair, arguably the sanest member of the company, who may harbor a secret crush on Fred.

Winslow Corbett is Poppy Norton-Taylor, the overly emotional assistant stage manager, understudy for bimbo “actress” Brooke Ashton, and understudy to the understudy for alcoholic stage vet Selsdon Mowbray.

Jennifer Lyon portrays Brooke, a va-va-voom blonde with the IQ of a pigeon, whose line readings and onstage moves are so set in stone that she could be the only actor on stage and still go on with the play. Oh, and she also has quite a problem keeping her contact lenses in her eyes.

Nick Ullett is Selsdon, a gent who’s been in the theater possibly as long as Elizabeth II has been Queen, and an actor whose morning coffee is a shot of whiskey. Nooks and crannies abound with his stashed bottles of booze.

Brian Hostenske completes the cast as Tim, stage manager, understudy for Selsdon and Freddy, and resident gofer.

Superlatives are in order for each and every one of the above.

As Noises Off (and Nothing On) continue on their accident-prone course, Brooke strips down to her underwear, Frederick ends up with his pants around his ankles, various actors are draped with sheets, and doors don’t stop slamming open and shut.  Cues are missed (repeatedly), entrances are mistimed (equally often), and sardines end up spilled here, there and everywhere.

For South Coast Rep’s production of Noises Off (and for the Grand Theatre of Weston-Super-Mare’ production of Nothing On), John Iacovelli has designed a two-story country home, almost too posh for the Grand, but just wait till, in Act Two, the set revolves 180 degrees to show the audience what happens backstage when actors are behind the set.  (Surely there are theaters all over the world where similar mishaps occur on a regular basis.) Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes are a Technicolor treat.  York Kennedy (lighting) and Vincent Olivieri (sound) complete SCR’s first-rate design team.

When British farce is performed to perfection (see our review of Tom, Dick, and Harry), it is side-splittingly funny.  A great production of Noises Off is funnier still—provided that it’s great actors like South Coast Rep’s who are pretending to have no idea what they’re doing. Who knew that bad could end up being so gosh darn good! 

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
February 15, 2009
Photos: Henry DiRocco

Comments are closed.