Noises Off | Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Noises-Off 75Popular with practically everyone, even “farceophobes” like me, it’s a good way to forget your troubles and get happy. At least, most of it is.

Noises-Off 500

Michael Frayn’s 1982 comedy Noises Off closes the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ 47th season, and it’s an excellent choice. Popular with practically everyone, even “farceophobes” like me, it’s a good way to forget your troubles and get happy. At least, most of it is. My only real complaint with the show is that it’s too long, and the extended Act II has always needed trimming, or at least, the second intermission should be restored. (Actually, I do have an idea about that. Besides the fact that three separate acts seem to be anathema in theatres today, here, the middle of Act II does look like an ending, and it could be confusing to an audience to break it there. That said, the Rep will occasionally put on a classic play and observe the conventional structure.)

Directed by Ed Stern, nine actors are put through a physical and mental ordeal for more than two hours, and it takes a lot of stamina to keep the energy up, especially on two-show days. I don’t know how they do it at all, much less do it so well. This comedy is a perennial in theatres large and small, really just about any company that can build the two-sided set. But the Rep makes it rotate even, so Act I takes place on a stage decorated for “Nothing On,” the play-within-a-play that is the conceit used for the basis of the story, then when the second act begins, the audience gets to watch the whole thing turn around to reveal the backstage space. It’s a lot like looking under the hood of a car. In high school productions, it’s a pretty simple engine, but for the Rep, it’s a Ferrari, as designed by James Wolk. 

Peter Sargent’s lights help orient us and Elizabeth Covey’s costumes plus Rusty Wandall’s sound (all those doors, breaking glass, etc.) add to the fun. But the technical flourishes while impressive don’t make much difference in our enjoyment because the play really is the thing, and Frayn is nothing if not versatile, since you may know him best as the writer of Copenhagen, an Important Dramatic Play about Niels Bohr and the development of the atomic bomb.

The cast play dual roles, and in fact, the program comes with a section on the production that satirizes itself like a snake biting its own tail. One theatrical rule is that there should be no “noises offstage,” while the show out front, here, “Nothing On” struggles to find its feet. We meet the players at around 1 a.m., early on the day of the opening, and they are having a lot of trouble with Act I. The director pops up in various parts of the house—he was quite near me the first time he spoke up, and for a second I thought he was a disruptive audience member—and by now is greatly impatient with the provincial troupe playing the Grand Theater in Weston-super-Mare while he’s anxious to get back to the London production of Richard III he’s also directing.

“Nothing On” opens with the fictional Dotty Otley as meta-fictional dotty housekeepe,r Mrs. Clackett whose name is often mangled by the others. If you read her bio in the fake program, you’ll see why. Each character has a carefully crafted, ridiculous description of his/her “career.” You’ll also be treated to a pretentious “academic” essay, “A Glimpse of the Noumenal,” excerpted from a book-length study of farce, which is also hilarious. (I am really trying to get you to read that thing—you know you never do.) Dotty has made herself a plate of sardines and plans to watch TV when the phone rings and all hell starts to break loose. It’s too confusing to further identify characters in both plays with all three of their names (as actors in “Nothing On,” characters in “Noises Off” and their real ones) so there is a cast list at the end of this review.

Philip and Flavia Brent own the estate where Mrs. Clackett works, but they are currently living in Spain as a tax dodge. They have put the home in England up for sale. One of the realtors, Garry, smuggles a girl in, the daffy, meditation-obsessed Vicki, thinking the house is empty. But Philip and Flavia have decided to sneak in themselves for one night to celebrate their anniversary. The idea is that both couples continually dodge each other and during it all, an elderly burglar played by an alcoholic veteran actor, breaks in, philosophizing about how his career has gone down the toilet forcing him to break into “paper bags” when he once robbed banks. His audience would, of course, know that he was once a great Shakespearean actor now reduced to farce. There are also two backstage characters among the players, a stage manager and his assistant. “Nothing On” was written by Robin Housemonger who used to sell socks and parlayed that experience into his first successful show, “Socks Before Marriage.”

All the elements of farce—slamming doors, mistaken identities, disguises, preposterous goings on all around—are shown in “Nothing On,” the title of which refers to the men’s pants often dropping and the fact that Vicki is in her underwear for most of the play. But behind the scenes, we see the characters as their “real” imaginary selves and all that entails including some very strange interpersonal relationships, chronic nosebleeds, temper tantrums, jealous lovers, in short, where life happens. Frayn said he wrote Noises Off while watching a one-act farce he wrote for Lynn Redgrave years earlier and it occurred to him that what he observed backstage was funnier than what was happening out front. And here, indeed, it is. Plus, we are treated to one of the most trenchant observations on the human condition that I’ve heard: “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 theatre. That’s life.” As words to live by, you could do worse. | Andrea Braun

Noises Off is at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through April 13, 2014. You may visit repstl.org.

NOTE: The cast is identified by actors “playing” the cast of “Nothing On” by their real names outside either theatre. Is that clear? Didn’t think so, but here they are anyway:

Mrs. Clackett (Dotty Otley) – Dale Hodges

Director (Lloyd Dallas)—Fletcher McTaggart

Brooke Ashton (Vicki) – Ruth Pferdehirt

Garry Lejeune (Roger Tramplemain)—John Scherer

Poppy Norton-Taylor (assistant stage manager) – Rebeca Miller

Federick Fellowes (Philip Brent) – Andy Prosky

Belinda Blair (Flavia Brent) – Victoria Adams-Zischke

Tim Allgood (stage manager)– Kevin Sebastian

Selsdon Mowbray  (burglar)– Joneal Joplin

 

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