Imagine a production of one of those hilarious English farces like No Sex Please, We’re British whose actors are still struggling with their lines, have yet to master the requisite comic timing, and still haven’t learned when to enter and exit. Lines will be forgotten, jokes won’t get their payoff, cues will be missed, and the entire production an absolute mess. Certainly not one 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 an English farce.
Not every real-life theater company is up to the demands of Frayne’s award-winning treat. Only actors with total command of their lines, perfect coming timing, and absolute readiness to enter and exit on cue again and again and again can do this contemporary comedy classic justice. Fortunately, the cast assembled at the La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts meet all three criteria.
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. For anyone who’s missed either the play or Peter Bogdanovich’s film version, Frayne’s farce centers on a troupe of ragtag actors getting ready for what is certain to be a disaster of an opening night. Act One is the final dress rehearsal of Nothing On, a 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.
For their revival of Noises Off, the La Mirada Theatre and McCoy Rigby productions made the savvy decision to enlist the directorial skills of Richard Seyd, a nearly thirty-year N.O. vet, and the result is as all-around sensational a production as you’re likely to see. Under Seyd’s inspired direction, the entire cast demonstrate mastery of the very skills their Nothing On counterparts have yet to “get,” i.e.razor-sharp timing, athletic physical comedy, and outrageous characterizations.
Bo Foxworth is Lloyd Dallas, Nothing On’s temperamental director, steadily growing more and more harried as his cast of misfits makes goof after goof.
It’s Noises Off #3 for Lori Larson as wacky Dotty Otley, an almost over-the-hill regional theater character actress 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.
Matthew Miller portrays Garry Lejeune, a leading man growing increasingly suspicious of paramour Dotty’s relationship with castmate Frederick Fellowes—and as incapable as ever at finding the right words to end a sentence.
James Lancaster is Frederick Fellowes, 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.
Maura Vincent (Mrs. Seyd and another Noises Off vet) plays Belinda Blair, the most level-headed member of the company, who may harbor a secret crush on Freddie.
Rona Benson is Poppy Norton-Taylor, the overwrought assistant stage manager, understudy for bimbo “actress” Brooke Ashton, and understudy to the understudy for alcoholic stage vet Selsdon Mowbray.
Annie Abrams portrays Brooke, a curvaceous 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.
Leland Crooke 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.
Joe Delafield completes the cast as Tim, stage manager, understudy for Selsdon and Freddy, and resident gofer.
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. Expect to be laughing so hard it hurts.
There is truly not a weak link in La Mirada’s superlative ensemble, but having seen a number of Noises Offs, I’d be remiss not to mention two performances in particular. Abrams is hilariously dazed as Brooke herself and even funnier in the rainbow gamut of pre-programmed poses and gestures Brooke uses when playing Nothing On’s Vicki. As for Belinda, Vincent makes her the heart and soul of the Nothing On company, rather than the stock diva she’s sometimes portrayed as.
Design-wise, La Mirada has imported the 2004 Seattle Rep production’s set, costumes, and lighting, all of which are impressive. John Iacovelli’s scenic design is precisely what you’d expect from a second or third tier British touring production; the country home looks grand from the outside, but inspect more closely and you’ll see that every door leads, not into another room, but straight to the outdoors, or at least to the blue sky scrim that serves as backdrop. (Clearly Nothing On designer “Gina Stairwell” had other things on her mind than details.) Other Noises Offs may have had more gorgeously concocted and hued costumes than Rose Pederson’s, but Pederson’s look like exactly what “Patsy Button” might have come up with for Nothing On. York Kennedy’s lighting and local talent Josh Bessom’s sound design are both impeccable.
Buck Mason is production manager, David Cruise technical director, and Terry Hanrahan assistant stage manager, and Lisa Palmire production stage manager. Casting for McCoy Rigby Entertainment is by Julia Flores.
Noises Off is that rarity among comedies—one that keeps getting funnier each time you see it. Even so, Wednesday’s audience of mostly gray-haired first-timers found themselves in unanimous hysterics by show’s end. There may be plenty of “noises off” in La Mirada’s Noises Off, but many if not most of them are chuckles, giggles, hoots, chortles, and guffaws coming from beyond the fourth wall.
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Boulevard, La Mirada.
September 28, 2011
Photos: Michael Lamont