Michael Frayn’s farce within a farce is a clever, funny story with brilliant set design and a talented cast.
Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off” makes a farce out of a farce in the latest Asolo Repertory Theatre production. That may sound redundant, but it’s not.
It’s a play within a play. A low-rent touring company is gearing up for a 12-week tour of a sex farce called “Nothing On” in Britain’s boondocks. In the first act, they’re doing the final dress rehearsal — and screwing it up royally. The second act shows you the screw-ups backstage. There’s also a coda where you see how the bickering cast has reached the boiling point after several months on the road.
Trigger warning: Both “Noises Off” and “Nothing On” are packed with stock characters. These predate PC-sensibilities. If that might send you to the boiling point, consider watching PBS.
Lloyd Dallas (Coburn Goss) is the harried director, who winds up juggling two plays and two mistresses. (Poppy and Brooke, who are both in the company.) He tries (and fails) to stay cool with the incompetent cast and his harried stage managers. He’s got a short fuse and a sharp tongue.
Brooke (Katie Sah) is the stereotypical, bubble-headed bimbo à la Betty Boop. She’s either losing her contact lenses or her place in the script. In the farcical fan-service tradition, her character in “Nothing On” is usually barely dressed.
Freddy (Dylan Crow) is a sensitive, earnest soul who drives the director crazy. His phobias for blood and violence trigger show-stopping nosebleeds. He’s also constantly interrupting the rehearsal to ask the subtext of his lines.
Garry (Andrew Hardaway) is the dim leading man. He can remember his lines in the script, but has trouble with normal conversation. He ends most of his sentences with a confused “you know.” Dotty (Christianne Tisdale) is an American TV star, and one of the play’s producers. She portrays a housekeeper in “Nothing On.” Despite her televised acclaim, she’s not up for the precision timing of farce — especially when it comes to a gag involving a plate of sardines. Tim (Scott Shomaker) is the frazzled, bullied, sleep-deprived technical director. The demanding director is driving him to a nervous breakdown. Poppy (Laura Rook) is the emotionally fragile assistant stage manager. She’s also pregnant, with the director’s love child.
Belinda (Kate Hampton) is comparatively normal, though she talks behind people’s backs. Selsdon Mowbray (Steve Hendrickson) is an aging character actor with both a hearing problem and a drinking problem. The rest of the cast is constantly trying to separate him from hidden liquor bottles.
The actors deliver great comedic performances. They bring their over-the-top characters to life with a combination of quirky, idiosyncratic traits and demanding physical comedy. Hardaway even does an amazing job of falling down stairs — a brave stunt, especially when performed night after night. Kudos to Michael Rossmy for his precision movement direction.
Don Stephenson keeps the farcical engine stoked. There’s never a dull moment — or a still one. The play’s dense with bits of business and general chaos. This is more than Murphy’s Law at work. Things go wrong because people are petty, jealous, self-centered, clueless or incompetent.
Tracy Christensen’s period costumes are a hoot. Michael Schweikardt puts a brilliant spin on the set design. The set literally revolves — you see the view from the theater in the first act, and the backstage view in the second act, then returning to the theater view for the coda. It’s a nice nod to the machinery of theater. And that’s what farce is all about, after all.
Farce should run like precision clockwork. For the characters in a farce, things are going terribly wrong. To make it funny, the actors have to get things terribly right. Making a farce out of a farce is a brilliant idea. Frayn (who also did the brainy “Copenhagen”) is a brilliant playwright.
The level of difficulty is part of the fun. The Asolo Rep actors get it right, while pretending to be a cast who gets it all wrong. This isn’t Paddy Chayefsky, so don’t expect in-depth character studies. Do expect to laugh. Between the laughter, you’ll get a clever glimpse of the clever clockwork behind it all.