It has origins in commedia dell’arte in Italy in the 16th century, and that form influenced Georges Feydeau, who wrote 40 or so farces in 19th century France. Shakespeare incorporated elements of farce in many of his plays, and I think it would be fair to call one of his earliest, The Comedy of Errors, a full out farce. It is his influence that seems to have informed the English tradition over the centuries, since Brits seem to love the form, be it through traditional Music Hall Comedy, Monty Python’s Flying Circus or the comedian Benny Hill. So, it is fitting that arguably the best-known and most frequently performed farce is Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, a door-slamming, over-the-top story of a group of actors touring the provinces for 10 weeks presenting a play called “Nothing On” (you can choose the connotation of the title of the fictional play for yourself).
At OAT, Kevin Shaw’s set is elaborate, and comes equipped with the requisite doors (7) and a curtain to the “attic” for good measure. “Backstage” looks just like it should, as well. Jane Sullivan’s costumes are delightful and character-appropriate, and Michael Sullivan’s lights and Chris Abbott’s sound set the appropriate moods. I always feel like I need to mention the Stage Manager in these kinds of productions, and the hard-working Jim Welch (and assistant Sarah Lewey) make it all run smoothly.
Jason Cannon has directed a group of fine actors, most of whom are adept farceurs. Sarah Cannon and Blane Pressler are standouts as actress Belinda Blair (playing Flavia Brent in “Nothing On”) and actor Frederick Fellowes (also Philip Brent). Sarah Cannon makes the cloyingly sweet Belinda likeable and Pressler’s Frederick, plagued by nosebleeds and a constant need to understand his character’s motivation, is less annoying than he might be. Both are excellent physical comics, as well, Almost matching them are Lavonne Byers as Dotty Otley, a woman of a certain age having an affair with the much younger, perpetually confused Garry Lejeune (Gregory Cuellar, also Roger in “Nothing On”). Dotty play the wisecracking housekeeper, Mrs. Clackett, employed by Philip and Flavia. She is in charge of their home while they live in Spain as tax exiles.
It’s nearly impossible to describe the “plot” of this farce-within-a-farce, so it’s probably simplest to note that a group of actors are trying to put on a sex farce onstage while dealing with their own farcical issues backstage, a much more interesting place. The three-act structure puts us first at the dress rehearsal, which is going spectacularly badly with misplaced props, dropped lines, and the constant intrusion of the “voice of God,” Lloyd Dallas (Ryan Dobson), the director, placed in the theatre balcony and talking down to his cast. He does go back and forth to the stage also. He is involved with two of the women in the cast, Brooke Ashton (Kristin McGuire, also as Vicki) and stage manager, Poppy Norton-Taylor (Bess Moynihan), who understudies Vicki. Amidst the craziness, Moynihan stands out as a three-dimensional character to whom we can relate. She’s part of the farce, of course, but she also has a real problem and a vulnerability that is both appealing and rare. For me, she came close to stealing the show.
The cast is rounded out by Michael Detmer as assistant stage manager, Tim Allgood and understudy to Selsdon Mowbray (Gordon Fox) who plays a burglar. One of Tim’s jobs is trying to keep Selsdon sober, and another is acting as a flower deliveryman for Dallas, as he tries to keep his girlfriends happy. Many other mix-ups ensue, and this is mostly funny stuff. The first act is a bit slow (to be fair it’s also the longest and has to introduce us to everybody), the second takes place backstage and has a very Keystone Kops/Marx Brothers style about it, and the third is during the last stop of the tour and back out in front of the house where everything that can go wrong does, and the hostility in the wings is now completely out of control. Noises Off gets much funnier and faster paced as it goes along, and the audience gets the meaning of the title which is a theatrical term for being able to hear noise from off stage during a production.
There were a few problems with the British accents, and they mostly seemed to have to do with how much energy the actors had to put into the physical demands of the farce. At first, everyone seemed comfortable “speaking English,” but later, the affectation became spotty and enunciation could have been clearer when some of the actors were facing upstage. This was not an issue for everyone, however. The first act seemed more slowly paced than I’m accustomed to seeing it, but there may be a reason for that, since I overheard audience members complaining at intermission that the actors all talked too fast. And finally, the weakest link in this production IS the audience. Until the very end, they barely laughed. When actors are performing screwball comedy, the audience is an extremely important part of the ensemble. If we don’t laugh, their timing goes off, so then subsequent laughs don’t come either. I admit the first act wasn’t as funny as it could have been with faster line pickups and perhaps not slowing down every time Lloyd went back and forth, but then there lies the trap of risking the lines being misheard.
I understand that audience response was not an issue at the preview or the opening night, so maybe the audience I was among was just too full of pie until late in the evening. In any event, Noises Off offers many pleasures, and while not a spectacular rendition of the show, perhaps, it is fun to watch and does convey Frayn’s central message : “That's what it's all about, doors and sardines. Getting on, getting off. Getting the sardines on, getting the sardines off. That's farce. That's - that's the theatre. That's life.”