If you have never seen NOISES OFF, stop reading this review, order your tickets for the production by REP, and then come back to it. It is a must see for all theatre professionals, enthusiasts, and appreciators. The script is tight, the action strictly defined, and the laughs start about 10 seconds into the first act and crest at the curtain call at the end of the third.
The primary strength of this production, and indeed every production I have seen of this play, is the script. Michael Frayn has crafted a brilliant work about a production of the fictional play Nothing On, a British sex farce, being produced by some of the most wildly varying personalities possible, complete with secret romances and an incredibly stressful rehearsal and touring schedule. We check in with the production at their final rehearsal, backstage midway through the run, then back onstage for the final performance, each time beginning again at Act One of Nothing On.
The play gives very little room for a production to vary overly much. Everything from layout of the doors to the precisely timed stage directions are so necessary to the storytelling that most productions look very much the same. The REP production finds its voice most in a highly stylized (though who can say what that style is) of the production, with sharp parody of melodrama and spoof. Movements (while in the play-within-the-play) are stilted, posed, and frequently border on the unnatural. Dropping out, the actors relax and show their true talents as they play the company performing the play.
Director Gregory Boyd has done excellent work updating the play without significant changes to the text, to make it relevant for a performing company in the present, and does not let NOISES OFF fade into the background as a period piece. The stunning set, designed by Neil Patel, serves the production while being a true work of art in its own right. Especially nice touches include glimpses through the set during all three acts. I greatly enjoyed catching a glimpse of the front lights while we watched from backstage. Also an improvement, the set was not a flat, rotating piece, but rather a three walled unit as is the style in most indoor sets now, that was fully utilized both in onstage and backstage scenes.
Performances this time around were, unfortunately, uneven. Kathleen Pirkl Tague was delightful from the moment she stepped onstage, and Stephen Pelinski was both delightful as the ‘voice of God’ director at the top of the show as well as once he came to the stage, embodying everything wrong with the elitist, graduate degree yielding, philandering director of our era. Michael Gotch does particularly fine work as the stage manager Tim, a role normally little more than an afterthought. Carine Montbertrand is committed and makes a great appearance here and there, but allows her character to fall overmuch into a caricature. Steve Tague is the sole performer who I enjoyed much more in his character in Nothing On than the actor he plays. I had a hard time believing him as the gentle doofus that all the women fall in love with. John Tyson makes a guest artist appearance as Selsdon, and plays it beautifully.
All in all, it is a very enjoyable evening, and the show is selling out deservedly quickly. The production is definitely its own, and pushes the script as far as it can be taken, but wisely understands that the play does not need much correction. More solid performances could be desired, but it doesn’t detract from the joy of the evening.
by Michael Frayn
Directed by Gregory Boyd
Through December 11, 2011
Resident Ensemble Players
University of Delaware
Newark, DE 19716