Part of the excitement of live theater is the idea that anything could go wrong at any moment. "Noises Off" takes a look at what it would be like if everything did.
Michael Frayn's farce within a farce premiered in London in 1982, and appeared on Broadway the following year. Since then, it's become a staple of regional and community theater, but this is the first time it's appeared on the Santa Maria Civic Theatre stage.
The setting is the country home of a family with the delightful name of Brent. The daffy maid Mrs. Clackett toddles in and answers the phone. She explains to the caller that the Brents are abroad in Spain, while she's stayed behind to look after the house. Just as we're settling into the scene, a voice calls out from the audience. It's the director, Lloyd Dallas (Hank Wethington), stopping the actor onstage to point out a mistake. Turns out, we are witnessing a grueling all-night final rehearsal for a farce called “Nothing On.” The audience is even given a second program for this other play -- a clever touch.
The rehearsal of “Nothing On” moves forward in fits and starts. A young couple stumble through the door in the throes of passion. Roger is an estate agent who's supposed to be leasing out the house. However, believing nobody's home, he's passing the place off as his own to impress his companion, Vicki. Meanwhile, Philip and Flavia Brent have arrived home, but want to keep it a secret from the IRS, as they moved abroad to dodge their taxes. And to top it all off, a burglar breaks in. As one might expect, there is much running around, door slamming and confusion.
But not nearly as much confusion as the (fictitious) actors face in trying to portray it. The props alone provide a ton of comedic complications. Dotty (Angi Herrick), who plays Mrs. Clackett, has an impossible time remembering what to do with a telephone receiver, a newspaper and an all-important plate of sardines. The other actors all have their quirks, too.
Frayn no doubt drew on his past theater experience when penning these players. In the role of Philip, Freddy (Jeffrey Staso) wants to stop and make sense of everything that's happening in the play. (This presages the current plot-hole nitpick culture on the internet, which this critic gleefully participates in.) He also tends to develop nosebleeds at the slightest sign of violence. Playing Roger, Garry (Cody Westbay) can barely choke out a sentence that isn't scripted. Brooke (Ellen Jones) is just as ditzy as her character Vicki. She's incapable of going off-script, no matter how many outlandish things happen.
Much of the very British humor comes from how polite the characters try to be, calling each other “my darling” and other terms of endearment, while clearly seething inside. Belinda Blair (Irene Dahmen) who plays Flavia, particularly tries to keep everything pleasant. And playing the burglar, Selsdon (Jim Dahmen) is a drunk who's constantly trying to escape the theater and find the nearest bottle of liquor. Needless to say, stage manager Tim Allgood (Jaime Espinoza) and his assistant, Poppy Norton-Taylor (Chelsea Garcia), are both equally put upon.
The cast has good comic timing and works well together. Herrick is dressed like a cross between Carol Burnett's cleaning lady character and Lucy Ricardo, and acts like a character from an old BBC sitcom. Jones gives Brooke an ever-cracking, high-pitched voice that adds to the humor of her character's airheaded lines. Jim Dahmen captures the broad Shakespearean line reads of the “old pro” Selsdon and does a good drunk bit. He has an innocence about him that makes the old souse sympathetic. Irene Dahmen has a knack for playing “fancy” characters and is especially suited to Belinda's role as Flavia Brent. Wethington captures the director's ever-increasing exasperation and nails his thinly veiled sarcastic barbs. Garcia and Espinoza add to the effect as they quail before his rage. Staso particularly shines during the aforementioned plot-hole bit.
Jay Herrick, Jim Dahmen and director Cody Fogh have built an impressive two-level set that provides an abundance of doors for slamming.
Act 2 takes place backstage during a performance of “Nothing On.” The crew for this production (the actual crew of “Noises Off,” not the fictitious crew) deserves some kind of local theater award. During the first intermission, they are hard at work turning the entire set around.
By this point in the run, romantic entanglements and bruised feelings have threatened to bring the production down. It's particularly amusing to see Westbay's previously timid character, running around with a maniacal gleam in his eye, plotting revenge.
We hear the actors' lines emanating from the other side, and even the other “audience” laughing at them. Meanwhile, a near-silent slapstick comedy unfolds before us. It's absolute chaos backstage, while everyone continues trying to keep the show running smoothly.
In the manner of farce, most of the evening is a barrage of jokes and gags. Luckily, in this case, most of them land. There are some really big laughs in this production. Herrick and Garcia provide the most serious, emotional moments of the show, mostly in silent reactions.
During the second intermission, the crew returns the set to its front-facing position, while adding some special touches to show how the production has deteriorated.
When Dotty enters again as Mrs. Clackett, she is hilariously beyond caring at all. By this point, the audience knows Act 1 of "Nothing On" so well that they're able to recognize every little thing that's gone wrong.
And hopefully, they'll also recognize every little thing that went right in Cody Fogh's ambitious civic theater production.