Updated: Jul 21
A Chaotic Comedy Masterpiece!
COSTA MESA—JULY 19, 2022
Prod them a little, and congenital theatergoers will admit the dark and dirty truth: The most calamitous nights in the theater can be almost as memorable as the most successful. It's strangely involving to watch actors struggle heroically in a ludicrous play. But whoever heard of a play in which both extremes of theatergoing pleasure occupy the same stage at the same time?
That's what happens at Michael Frayn's ''Noises Off,'' the double-whammy English farce now playing at Costa Mesa Playhouse through July 31st. All three acts of this play recycle the same theatrical catastrophe: We watch a half- dozen has-been and never-were British actors, at different stops on a provincial tour, as they perform the first act of a puerile, door-slamming sex farce titled ''Nothing On," most probably the silliest and most ineptly acted play one could ever hope to encounter. But out of its lunacies, Mr. Frayn has constructed the larger prank of ''Noises Off'' — which is as cleverly conceived and adroitly performed a farce as Costa Mesa Playhouse audiences has seen in an age.
Playwright Frayn (“Copenhagen;” “Democracy”), former critic and screenwriter, has dug deep into his bag of tricks — slapstick, mime, nihilism, even two different sets of program notes — for a light entertainment of no earthly significance whatsoever, though, possibly, you might take it for a broad satire of showbiz. Created in the 1980’s, it would be best described as a love letter to the unpredictable nature of the stage.
And so by its own nature, under co-directors’ Kathy Paladino (“Silent Sky”) and David Rodriguez’ (“Dracula”) impressive control, the play takes its ludicrous apotheosis to its most dizzying comic heights, taking a fond look at the follies of theatre folk, whose susceptibility to out-of-control egos, memory loss, and passionate affairs turn every performance into a high-risk, hilarious adventure.
This play-within-a-play captures a touring theatre troupe’s production of “Nothing On” in three stages: dress rehearsal, the opening performance, and a performance towards the end of a debilitating run. Frayne gives us a window into the inner workings of theatre behind the scenes, progressing from flubbed lines and missed cues in the dress rehearsal to double-crosses and misunderstandings, mounting the friction between cast members in the final performance. Brimming with slapstick comedy, “Noises Off” is a delightful, idiotic backstage trifle, complete with a myriad of slamming doors, falling trousers, couples in various states of undress, an Arab sheik, and, of course — those flying sardines!
The fun begins even before the curtain goes up. Separate to the Playbill, we find a program-within-a-program for the play-within-a-play, directed by the pompous Lloyd Dallas. If you do some research, you also may learn that the affected author of ''Nothing On,'' a Mr. Robin Housemonger, is supposedly a former ''unsuccessful gents hosiery wholesaler'' who used to sing all the high twiddly bits of “The Merry Widow” over tea.
The actors who stumble into view are scarcely more distinctive. The leading lady, cast as a jolly housemaid, is a broken-down television comedian (Jackie Melbon; “Avenue Q”) who keeps misplacing her plate of sardines. Her fellow players range from a sloshed veteran actor (Mitchell Nunn; “The Foreigner”) who misses his every cue, to a terminally vacant, slightly neurotic ingenue (Stephanie Noel Garrison; “The Crucible”) who habitually loses her contact lenses in mid-speech. Guiding one and all is an addled, valium-popping director (Michael Keeney; Pod Series: “Bonnie Screws Up”) who gruffly interrupts the performance to correct his subordinate cast or to offer grave philosophy like, “doors and sardines are what farce, theater and life are all about.''
It happens that Act I of ''Noises Off'' is the frantic technical run-through of ''Nothing On'' on the eve of its premiere at the fictional Grand Theatre, and we're asked to study every ridiculous line and awful performance to appreciate the varied replays yet to come. The payoff is well justified, beginning after the first break.
Indeed, Act II of ''Noises Off'' is one of the most sustained slapstick ballets I've ever seen, comparable to the precise movements of a well-oiled German cuckoo clock. ''Nothing On'' is now a month into its tour, and we discover that its actors are carrying out a real-life sex farce that crudely parallels the fictional one they're appearing in. In this act, the play shows us a chaotic Wednesday matinee from the reverse angle of backstage. Every time an actor playing an illicit lover exits through a slamming door, he or she lands smack in the middle of a romantic rivalry, a lovers' tiff, a personal quarrel, or some other offstage shenanigan that lead to retribution and payback, sometimes even with a fire axe.
Besides being an ingeniously synchronized piece of writing and performing, with daredevil pratfalls and overlapping lines that interlock in midair, Act II of ''Noises Off'' is a forceful argument for farce's value as human comedy. Perhaps nothing could top it, you think. And then, Act III. Succinctly put, it's the icing on the cake. Months later, toward the end of their tour, there is open revolt against each other and the production, with the actors rewriting and sabotaging every line of their script, wrestling their recalcitrant props to the ground, where angry fits of jealousy, bumbling and stumbling, and periodic quests for revenge can all populate the stage simultaneously. It’s not long before the plot has to be abandoned entirely with the leads attempting to ad-lib towards some sort of end.
By that point Ms. Melbon’s Dotty has been reduced to a limping, snarling, quivering sack of raw nerves, her eyes bulging in agony. She gets every laugh, however, not the least of which is a terrified ''Who are you?'' delivered deadpan to an unexpected understudy. Watching the glee with which Ms. Melbon attacks her role, one imagines that she's secretly having a fine old time in this relished part.
But ''Noises Off'' is an ensemble effort, and everyone works to a slaphappy hilt: a properly vapid Stephanie Noel Garrison as the optically challenged Brooke who doesn’t pay any attention to script changes, who ultimately takes to delivering her lines as if she were a malfunctioning wind-up doll; Mr. Hunter's Garry, as a stalwart young leading man who veers steadily and subtly into nervous and physical collapse; and Mark Tillman's (“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”) physically battered, nose-bleed prone Frederick, a sonorous-voiced dolt who is having a May-September tumble with Dotty and uses Stanislavsky neither wisely nor well.
Mix in Mr. Nunn's sotted old ham, Selsdon, a hard-of-hearing tragedian who's given to dipsomania and wanders aimlessly throughout the theater; Sarah McGuire’s (“A Piece of My Heart”) gossipy, yet likable Belinda as the cast busybody, serving the informative function of a Greek chorus and as the company's most dutiful ad libber in adversity (''How odd to find a telephone in the garden!''); Mr. Keeney's director Lloyd, who is at first too extravagantly frazzled, but finds his usual acidic tone once he starts blurring the distinctions between ''Nothing On'' and his other ongoing theatrical assignment, ''Richard III;'' Hailey Tweter (“Night of the Living Dead”) and Eduardo Mora’s (“3 Bags Full”) Poppy and Tim (an earnest but zombied, sleepless-man-walking) as the timid, beleaguered stage managers; and Dotty's strutting co-star Garry Lejeune (Jaycob Hunter; “Clue!”), who always seems to be at a loss for words, and you've got a show that needs your immediate attention.
Directors Paladino and Rodriguez’ comic collaborators include scenic designer Antonio Beach, who provides a double-faced, intricate work that showcases the stage for the first and third scenes and a behind-the-scenes look for the middle scene. The frontal approach represents an elegant, two-story English manor home replete with multiple doors, a bay window and a drapery-shrouded attic, while the latter is filled with amusing props that come into play as the cast and crew disintegrate into myriad disputes.
Kaitlyn Campbell’s lighting, Tyler Neal’s technical direction and sound (including Lloyd's stentorian, back-of-theater voice) and Beatrice Gray’s costumes contribute to the chaos, including an amusing bandit attire for Selsdon, some incredibly garish outfits for Garry and Frederick and a sparsely populated wardrobe for the scantily clad Brooke.
Sight gags abound as well, such as a temperamental telephone that magically multiplies, omnipresent plates of sardines in every scene and a cactus that is placed in a most unfortunate location for Lloyd.
By the play's end, the audience is rolling in the aisles, loving every moment. So if you have never experienced theater as an actor or a crew member, then perhaps for you, "Noises Off" is simply an entertaining show with a lot of laughs. However, for those of us who tread the boards, Michael Frayn's "Noises Off " might very well be the funniest play ever written.
COSTA MESA PLAYHOUSE PRESENTS – NOISES OFF By MICHAEL FRAYN; Directed by KATHY PALADINO & DAVID RODRIGUEZ; Stage Manager SUSAN GAIL MANN; Set Designer ANTONIO BEACH; Technical Director TYLER NEAL; Lighting Designer KAITLYN CAMPBELL; Costume Designer BEATRICE GRAY; Special Effects FRANK PALADINO
STARRING: JACKIE MELBON, MICHAEL KEENEY, JAYCOB HUNTER, STEPHANIE NOEL GARRISON, HAILEY TWETER, MARK TILLMAN, SARAH MCGUIRE, EDUARDO MORA, MITCHELL NUNN.
NOISES OFF is playing at COSTA MESA PLAYHOUSE and will run through Sunday, July 31st; Running time approximately 2 hours, 30 minutes; Performances will be Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00PM, Sundays at 2:00PM. A special Pay What You Will Performance is set for 8:00PM, Thursday, July 21st. Tickets start at $22 and can be purchased by visiting https://costamesaplayhouse.com/
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Mike Brown