If there is an Olympics of Theater, rehearsing and performing Michael Frayn's "Noises Off" would be its equivalent of the triathlon: an endurance test for the participants, but a lot of fun to watch from the safety of one's own chair. With its lovingly detailed look on backstage and onstage chaos, and the opportunities it gives actors to show off their timing and physical comedy, "Noises Off" is popular among theater people, so it gets performed fairly often despite its complexity. I have seen it several times, and I always welcome it back. Last weekend Greater Rochester Repertory Companies gave it a try at RAPA Playhouse, and it was as welcome as ever.
"Noises Off" is the saga of the touring company of "Nothing On," one of those bawdy, low-brow British farces full of slamming doors, mistaken identities, and comely young ladies running around in their knickers. Act One takes place during a fraught final rehearsal before opening night in Cleveland, when it becomes clear that a few of the company members are romantically involved; by Act Two, we are well into the run, and most of the members of the company have reasons (romantic and otherwise) to hate each other, and sabotage one another's entrances and exits unmercifully.
By the third act and the last legs of the tour, we are in New Jersey, the cast is completely worn out, and "Nothing On" has hilariously decomposed onstage and off. Lines and entrances completely forgotten or completely off cue, props take on lives of their own (the telephone in this production deserved its own program credit), and there is a general air of chaotic, what-the-hell hilarity.
This seeming chaos, of course, needs to be timed to the nanosecond by the director and actors. Director Eric Vaughn Johnson took a heterogeneous group of actors, ranging from the experienced to virtual first-timers, and molded them into an excellent comic ensemble. A few cast members were making their stage debuts in this production, but you would have had a hard time guessing which ones.
The play's constantly shifting focus, with actors bouncing (and making noises) on and off, puts it in constant peril of becoming incoherent, but apart from a lost line or two, everything in this production registered just when it was supposed to, and with maximum hilarity. The second act, much of which takes place in pantomime involving all of the actors, was a real tour de force — constantly funny and with the action always clear. And the third act was a riot: the funniest theatrical disaster imaginable.
Frayn's characters are deliberately sketchy, but the actors filled in the sketches ably. Katie Guy made a likeably confused character of the typical slatternly British housekeeper, using a Cockney accent slightly to the left of Angela Lansbury's Mrs. Lovett. I don't think the character Garry LeJeune actually finishes a sentence in the entire play, and actor Charlie Harrington had his dithering deceptive cadences down pat. Allie Treacy was delightfully dippy as Brooke, Garry LeJeune's business partner and romantic interest in "Nothing On."
Billy DeMetsenaere and Audrey McGuire made a delightful couple — she briskly sensible and he terminally confused — offering some priceless facial expressions. Add Rob Tromp as the put-upon director and Stephanie Valliere and Jashawn Lee as the even more put-upon stage managers, and Rich Hughson as a veteran actor and veteran drunk, and you had an impressive and very funny ensemble.
This may or may not have added up to "the funniest farce of all time," as the ads promised, but "Noises Off" was surely the funniest time to be had onstage in town this month; I wish it was running longer.