Faced with an ailing actress unable to perform on Sunday night, Noises Off director Doug Wilder made the rather unusual decision to pull on a spare dress and play the role himself, venturing onstage with a copy of the script in hand. This turned out to be the best solution anyone could have found. The cross-dressed Wilder — bearded, broad-shouldered, and shaggy-haired — proved completely undistracting.
Anyone who finds this surprising should probably familiarize themselves with this show (in which case, the irreverent and accomplished production now playing at 1st Stage is a great place to start). It’s hard to imagine a show more capable of absorbing such a strange last-minute adjustment than Noises Off. This is farce, after all, and not only that but a damn good one.
Michael Frayn’s sharp writing is unrelentingly funny. The characters are delightfully screwy. And Frayn’s plot, which tracks a misguided troupe of unprepared actors through a touring production of a farce that’s falling apart at the seams, features so much slapstick, confusion, and desperately funny attempts at self-control — doors bang, props go flying, trousers drop, and someone even sits on a cactus — that a man in a dress wandering around reading directly from the script seems to fit right in.
But what’s really amazing is that Wilder can keep right in step with the physical action. Because in fashioning a coherent play-within-a-play, then punching holes through it with a volley of backstage antics, Frayn has pulled off one of the most complexly structured comedies ever written (the play has been a critical darling, and a regional theatre favorite, ever since its English debut in 1982).
The first act, which takes place on the set of a show called Nothing On the night before it opens, is an entertaining but straightforward introduction to the characters as they attempt some last-minute rehearsal. The second act, however — in which the set revolves 180 degrees and we follow the actors back and forth between onstage and backstage romances, feuds, and misunderstandings — has so much simultaneous action that Frayn formats this portion of the script like a chart, with separate columns running down each page for each perfectly-timed sequence of events.
Perhaps Wilder would have erred onstage were his ensemble less assured. But the cast here is very much on top of things, led by the very entertaining Matthew Pauli as the irascible Nothing On director Lloyd Dallas. The cast of Nothing On is a hot mess — Dotty (Kathleen Akerly) can’t remember her lines, Garry (Dylan Myers) is an inarticulate dunderhead, the flaky Brooke (Blair Bowers) can barely pay attention, Freddy (Zachary Fernebok) is an emotional wreck due to a shake-up at home, Selsdon (Mario Baldessari) is an unpredictable old drunk, and Belinda (Melissa Graves) is better at fanning the flames of gossip than staying on task (this was Wilder on Sunday night).
Closes December 29, 2013
1st Stage Theatre
1524 Spring Hill Road
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Fridays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
Throw Tim the overworked stage manager (Jason Glass) into the mix along with Poppy the jilted assistant (Kate Karczewski), punch up a few love triangles among the bunch, and it’s a wonder that the first act doesn’t end in homicide, electrocution, or at least some solid head trauma.
But Wilder has put his rehearsal time to good use. The complex, demanding show plays like clockwork. Perhaps there are hiccups here and there, but we’re never more than seconds away from the next joke, and everyone’s up to the challenge. It takes true talent and tenacious actors to make a show look so brilliantly terrible, and fall apart so gracefully.
No one likes seeing a bad production, and a bad production of this play in particular is an outright safety hazard. At 1st Stage, however, we’re blessed with a chance to enjoy a singular comic gem come to life with aplomb. By the time the third act swings around, and we see (from the front, again) the onstage accumulation of all the backstage follies, it’s hard to imagine a worse Nothing On — or a better Noises Off.
Noises Off by Michael Frayn. Directed by Doug Wilder. Featuring Kathleen Akerly, Mario Baldessari, Blair Bowers, Zachary Fernebok, Jason Glass, Melissa Graves, Kate Karczewski, Dylan Myers, and Matthew Pauli. Set design: Steven Royal. Lighting design: Brian S. Allard. Costume design: Erin Nugent. Sound design: Jason Schlafstein. Props design: Cindy Landrum Jacobs. Produced by 1st Stage. Reviewed by Hunter Styles.