Robin Housemonger, Britain’s old warhouse of a playwright, has reached the absolute nadir of his miserable oeuvre with Nothing On, which is apparently a farce about fish. Otstar Productions inflicts it on us for three acts, utilizing a cast which is either drunk or insane, or, in the case of Mrs. Clackett (Dotty Otley), both….
Oh, thank the Lord God Almighty that I do not have to review – or even watch much of – Nothing On, the Brit-lit farce so lovingly skewered by Michael Frayn’s brilliant Noises Off. Nothing On is a tired collection of grade-Z actors mounting a touring production of a hackneyed type of British farce involving secrets, naughty things, slamming doors, near-misses and mistaken identities. People who couldn’t afford to go to theater would see these things instead. In Keegan Theatre’s Noises Off, grade-A actors give us a backstage look at the cast and crew of Nothing On as they struggle to overcome their own lack of talent and proclivity toward drink, jealously, and romantic scheming to produce something which, at best, aspires to mediocrity. Nothing On is awful; Noises Off is wonderful.
All comedy is grounded in seriousness, and this howlingly funny comedy is written by the ultraserious Frayn, who also wrote Copenhagen and Democracy. Keegan and director Mark A. Rhea apprehend the point. Rhea fills the cast with terrific dramatic actors, including Jim Jorgensen (whose recent roles include the fearsome lawyer, Roy Cohn, and Satan) as the hard-edged, and –pressed, director Lloyd Dallas; Charlotte Akin as the dotty Dottie Otley, who is financing the tour in a misbegotten effort to earn something toward retirement; and Robert Leembruggen as Selsdon Mowbray, failed actor extraordinaire and king of the souses.
Noises Off is a character study, and the secret to the successful Keegan production is that the characters – bizarre though they be – are all absolutely serious in pursuit of their objectives. Jorgensen is the absolute model of the tightly-wound control freak. He makes Dallas look like he is ready to bite somebody’s ear off if he gets one more provocation. Akin’s Otley is involved in a May-December relationship with the youthful Garry Lejeune (Michael Innocenti) – O.K., let’s be honest, more of a May – February of next year relationship.
The rest of the cast includes Frederick Fellowes (Jon Townson), one of those types of annoying people who has to have his motivation in a farce explained to him; Brooke Ashton (Brianna Letourneau), an ingénue with a black hole of a brain; the overworked stage manager Tim Allgood (Colin Smith) and his hysterical assistant Poppy Norton-Taylor (Elizabeth Jernigan); Mowbray, who prizes his art over everything except his drink and subsequent nap, and Belinda Blair (Susan Rhea), a relentlessly good stage citizen, a course she encourages for everyone else, with an ax handle.
Noises Off gives us Nothing On three times – once in the rehearsal room, where the doomed production is going through its unfortunate final preparation (at midnight, with only the first Act finished). Dottie cannot remember her stage directions; doors won’t open or, once opened, won’t close, and the stink of failure is everywhere. We see the farce again, from backstage, a month later (the set rotates; in an inspired touch, Smith, as Tim Allgood, supervises the transformation). By this time serious rot has set in upon the relationships. Lejeune believes that Dottie has cheated on him with the hapless Frederick, and is thus aflame with rage against them both. Dottie is furious with Lejeune in return. Dallas has gone on to direct Richard III but has returned to this production in order to stoke his romance with Brooke – thus enraging Poppy, who has a Big Secret to tell Dallas. We hear the miserable tropes of Nothing On from behind the stage, while in front of us the actors confront, bash and brutalize each other with disastrous consequences for the production. Finally, in the third Act, we see Nothing On full-face, in the eleventh week of the tour, where all hope has been lost, and everything is entropy, and calamity.
With a few exceptions, all this is done in dead earnest, which is what makes it so thigh-slappingly hilarious. Freddie is allergic to violence – it gives him a nosebleed – and when two characters appear ready to go at it, Townson’s face seems to explode, and, like a magic trick, he has the bloody handkerchief at his nose. Akin gives Dottie an angrier edge than I have seen other actors give her, but in this production it seems right. Her life savings are tied up in this production, and when it goes to hell she’s going to send the other characters there with it. Innocenti also reveals the fury in Lejeune’s nature more clearly than other performers I have seen in the role, and in addition throws himself around the set so vigorously, and effectively, that I looked in vain for a credited fight choreographer. Innocenti also – and this is a hell of a trick if he does it on purpose – appears to be able to sweat on command; with each calamity in the third Act, he seems to be covered with a fresh sheen, and by the end he shines like a cylinder of gold.
As for the wonderful Leembruggen, he gives the boozehound Mowbray the benign nature of a philosopher-king. Indeed, he is a little like Baruch Spinoza as portrayed by Alexander Strain in New Jerusalem at Theater J – except that where Spinoza derived his sweet disposition from his understanding of the nature of God, Mowbray gets his from denatured spirits in a bottle of Scotch blend.
In contrast to all this realism, Letourneau’s Brooke Ashton is significantly over the top. Ashton is certainly a dimbulb – her dogged insistence on delivering her lines as written when they are clearly inappropriate under the circumstances is one of the great pleasures of the third Act – but Letourneau pushes her character far beyond even the loony parameters Frayn sketches out for her. Her attention-grabbing posturing and breathy delivery, which seems clearly a director’s choice, wins some laughs while it happens but does so at the expense of the very serious underpinnings director Rhea has very carefully laid down for the rest of the play.
But this is not a large issue. Noises Off approaches perfect nonsense, and Keegan Theatre plays the heck out of it. It is a joyous adventure, watching a good play about the production of a very bad one.
By Michael Frayn
Directed by Mark A. Rhea
Produced by Keegan Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Noises Off plays thru Aug 22, 2010.
For details, directions and tickets, click here.