By Geary Danihy

            Anyone who has ever acted on the stage knows that it is best to shield the audience from what goes on in the wings and behind the scenery, for things can go terribly amiss. In the case of Nothing On, the framing play for the delightful farce, Noises Off, currently playing at the Hartford Stage, there’s not much that goes right – actors forget lines, get drunk, miss cues, mislay props, entangle themselves in love triangles, tumble down stairs and pursue vendettas while seeking to harm their fellow actors with an axe and a potted cactus.

            If it all sounds a bit crazed, it is, much to the delight of the audience, for Noises Off is perhaps the quintessential farce, complete with pratfalls and ten – count ‘em – ten doors that can be slammed (what would a farce be without multiple slamming doors?), jammed and otherwise misused. Written by Michael Frayn and directed for the Stage by Malcolm Morrison, the play is essentially two hours of non-stop bungled dialogue, sight gags and frenetic movement as a cast of third-rate actors attempts to rehearse and then present Nothing On a drawing room farce of dubious merit

            Given that there is a good deal of set-up necessary to pull all of this off, the first act, which consists of the final dress rehearsal for the play, is a bit slow in getting off the ground, but it is essential, for it establishes what should be going on in the play, knowledge the audience must have if it is to fully understand and enjoy what occurs in the second act.

            The tone of pending disaster is set from the moment Dotty Otley (Johanna Morrison) walks on the stage with a plate of sardines and answers the phone. When the conversation is over, should she hang up the phone? Leave the plate of sardines behind? She’s not sure, much to the consternation of Lloyd Dallas (Bill Kux), the play’s harried director.

Other problems quickly reveal themselves: the play’s ingénue, Brooke Ashton (Liv Rooth), has a tendency to lose one of her contact lenses at pivotal moments, making her essentially blind in one eye; Selsdon Mowbray (Noble Shropshire) has both a hearing and a drinking problem; Garry Lejeune (Michael Bakkensen) is an actor in constant search of motivation and Frederick Fellowes (David Andrew Macdonald) is in constant search of approval, something that Belinda Blair (Andrea Cirie) must contend with, since she play’s his wife; Tim Allgood (Daniel Toot), the stage manager, hasn’t slept in 48 hours and Poppy (Veronique Hurley), the somewhat addled assistant stage manager, pines for the director who is having an affair with…and so it goes. 

The first act ends with it painfully obvious that even though the show must go on, the cast is woefully unprepared. This is hilariously made evident at the start of the second act, for the stage turns and the audience is treated to the insanity occurring backstage as drunkenness, jealousy and thwarted love create enough distractions to turn a matinee performance of Nothing On into a three-ring circus staged by insane-asylum patients.

            Throughout this portion of the second act, the actors are in almost constant motion as a bottle of Scotch, the axe and the potted cactus are passed back and forth, shoelaces are tied, props misplaced and chaos reigns supreme. It is all wildly funny and, as directed by Morrison, wonderfully energetic.

            It is inevitable that this particular train will run off the tracks, and it does in the last portion of the second act when the stage again turns and the audience gets to see the final performance of Nothing On, a total disaster that contains just about everything that can go wrong on the stage. Part of the fun here for the audience is that by now actors’ lines, cues and blocking are well known, so the audience is well prepared to catch and delight in every blown line, missed cue and incorrect entrance or exit.

            Much praise must be given to the entire cast, not only because of the sheer physicality the play demands but also for the ability to portray “bad” actors well, something that might sound quite easy to do but is extremely challenging.

            All in all, Noises Off is well wroth a trip up to Hartford. It’s two hours of madcap silliness that is greatly appreciated and much needed in these dour, sour times.

            Noises Off runs through Sunday, May 17. For tickets or more information call 860-527-515 or got to hartfordstage.org.

            This review originally appeared in the Norwalk Citizen-News.

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