Frantic Farce at CRT
By Geary Danihy
For those of you not familiar with the classic farce penned by Michael Frayn (1982), you might be a bit confused when you enter the Connecticut Repertory Theatre in Storrs, open your program and read that you are about to see a play entitled “Nothing On,” a sex comedy by someone named Robin Housemonger (a Dickensian name if there ever was one). You might even check your ticket – Nope, it says you’re supposed to be seeing “Noises Off.” A conundrum? Well, not really, for over the course of two hours you will, in fact, see both “Nothing On” and “Noises Off,” for the basic premise of Frayn’s play is that you are, at first, at the tech rehearsal for “Nothing On” hours before the show is to open. Housemonger’s play is not meant to be a farce, it’s just a very bad play with very bad actors; “Noises Off is farce par excellence, with some very fine actors and a lot of slamming doors.
As directed by Vincent J. Cardinal, “Noises Off” (the term refers to sounds coming from off-stage) catalogs just about everything that could possibly go wrong in a live production, from cast jealousies and love triangles (pentagons?) to missing props, doors that won’t open or shut, a phone that doesn’t ring when it’s supposed to and squished sardines making a slippery mess on the stage floor. Though “Nothing On,” the play-within-a-play, never gets beyond the first act, “Noises Off” takes the audience from the tech rehearsal to a back-stage view of a performance to the final, last gasp of the show’s disastrous tour, when “Noises Off” all comes together and “Nothing On” all falls apart.
So, we have characters in “Nothing On” (signified hereafter by italics) who are being played by actors who are, in fact, characters in “Noises Off” being played by, well, real actors. Got it? As for the “actors” in “Nothing On,” just read the tongue-in-cheek bios in the program to get a sense of their varied careers. Unfortunately, there are no bios for the numerous sardines that play a pivotal role. I guess they can be considered supernumeraries.
Okay, so what about the real actors? Well, heading the list is the superb Jennifer Cody, who plays Dotty Otley, who plays the maid, Mrs. Clackett. Cody sets the mood from the start by having her character being slightly befuddled by her lines, her blocking and her props (telephone, newspaper and, yes, a plate of sardines). It’s a wonderful comic turn as she interacts with the director of “Nothing On,” Lloyd Dallas (John Bixler), that just gets better as the evening progresses to the chaos of the sex comedy’s final show, when, with superb comic timing, Cody’s Otley tries to figure out what the hell is happening on stage.
If there’s a rising action and climax to “Noises Off” it’s to be found in the amount of slap-stick that is in each of the acts. Limited in the first act, it increases (often mimed) in the second act and reaches a crescendo in the chaotic third act. Creating much of the physical mayhem falls to three characters: Garry Lejeune, aka Roger Tramplemain (Curtis Longfellow), Brooke Ashton, aka Vicki (Jayne Ng) and Frederick Fellowes, aka Philip Brent (Gavin McNicholl). The three characters slip, fall, slither or tumble down stairs and receive blows to various body parts. The only thing missing are in-the-face cream pies, but that role is taken on by the ubiquitous sardines (which are dumped on heads and pushed down bodices).
Someone not familiar with “Noises Off” may, at moments during this production, be a bit confused by who is actually in love (or lust) with whom, and director Cardinal may have wanted to pull in the reins on Ng’s portrayal (and posturing) as Brooke/Vicki – a bit more restraint might also serve Michael Doherty as the stage manager Tim Allgood – for farce, oddly enough, can’t be forced, it’s a tricky genre to stage for it is inherently over-the-top but must, at the same time, appear not to be so. It calls for actors to play fools who are not aware they are foolish.
Quibbles aside, CRT’s “Noises Off” provides enough laughs and pratfalls (as well as a slow split performed by Cody that not only got laughter but applause) to lighten any humid summer day. There’s no great message here, save that putting on a live production is fraught with mini-disasters and unexpected problems.
One of the inherent delights in the play is what might be termed comedic irony, for the structure of “Noises Off” allows the audience to learn the actors’ lines in “Nothing On” in the first act so that, in the second act, they know what’s happening up-stage (where “Nothing On” is being performed) while they watch the back-stage chaos and then, in the final act, much of the laughs arise from the audience knowing what should happen but doesn’t. The set-ups in the first act lead to the punch lines (and sight gags) of the final act — including a wandering telephone and…of course, the sardines.
“Noises Off” runs through June 25. For tickets or more information call 860-486-2113 or go to www.crt.uconn.edu.