The fun and the danger of mounting NOISES OFF, as the Narberth Community Theatre is now doing, can perhaps best be summed up by former New York Times drama critic Frank Rich. Rich referred to Michael Frayn’s farce as the funniest play written in his lifetime, and later referred to the unsuccessful film version as one of the worst movies ever made. Those superlatives put a lot of pressure on a company, and it’s a pleasure to report that if the amiable and hard-working cast of NCT doesn’t quite pull off the funniest evening in my lifetime, they wring more than enough laughs to guarantee a good time.
While playwright Frayn sets up a fair amount of backstage drama and love triangles to light the farcical fires under his characters, what his play is really about is how hard it is to make a farce work—how much fun it is to be in and watch a successful farce, and how horrifying it is to be caught in one (and helplessly watching it) when it dies. The three-act play introduces us to a not-quite-first-rate touring company stumbling through an eleventh-hour rehearsal of a dreadful but sure-fire farce called Nothing On. (If you’re up on your English sex farces, you’ll appreciate the aptness of the title.) The remaining two acts give us performances of the same act we see in rehearsal, one from a backstage perspective, and one from out front again, as the production and its performers inevitably and often hilariously fall apart. The brilliance of Frayn’s set-up and execution lies in our seeing how NOISES OFF works perfectly by virtue of the farce-within-the-farce, Nothing On, going catastrophically wrong.
Director Steve Arcidiacono gives his cast plenty of exercise as the actors race up and down stairs and in and out of seven doors, playing actors caught in their own real-life farce while simultaneously trying to keep their onstage farce on its feet. There are moments throughout of admirable choreography and split-second timing that draw not only well-deserved laughs from the audience, but the kind of “oohs” and “aahs” you hear when top-flight dancers execute especially graceful moves. Only in the final act, when the onstage farce hits bottom, does the company’s energy start to flag a bit. Nevertheless, the (real-life) actors seem to be having the time of their lives, and happily, this atmosphere of fun reaches the audience as well. Dan McGlaughlin, as the simultaneously pompous, inarticulate (and, apparently, insanely jealous) Gary, probably made me laugh the most, but all the actors score. In no particular order, Kim Albright is a delight as the harried assistant stage manager with a big secret; Shamus Hunter McCarty is perfectly exasperated as the overworked stage manager/understudy; Michael Tamin Yurcaba provides an appropriately bombastic presence as the director in over his head in more ways than one; Loretta Lucy Miller, as Dotty, somehow manages to make the word “sardines” insanely funny; Nancy Bennett finds plenty of her own ways to be funny as Belinda, the most “reliable” actor; Leigh Jacobs does well by the perpetually apologizing Freddie; Stephanie Weinstein is a hoot as the dim-bulb (and dim-sighted) novice Brooke; and Ben Kendall just has to enter to get his laughs as the never-quite-there Selsdon, the English veteran with equal parts greasepaint and alcohol in his veins.
Selsdon’s presence in the company brings me to an interesting decision by director Arcidiacono to Americanize the other onstage players. In Frayn’s original, we’re watching English actors playing the provinces, while for the NCT production, we see an apparently local company touring the less glamorous parts of Pennsylvania. I’m of two minds about the choice myself. On the one hand, I think it’s a good idea for the onstage group to be less-than-great American actors trying to do a British farce—that way, the real-life actors don’t have to keep up the English accents throughout the play (a condition that killed one production I saw). On the other hand, American actors don’t jibe with the very English things Frayn’s characters say to each other, nor is there a precise match with the funny program-within-the-program that gives the actors in Nothing On their own warped bios. Still, these are not issues that detract from an evening of seriously funny theatre, with plenty of happy noises on and off.
by Michael Frayn
Directed by Steve Arcidiacono
May 6-21, 2011
Narberth Community Theatre
206 Price Avenue
Narberth, PA 19072