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Review: 'Noises Off' at South Coast Repertory

February 14, 2009 | 10:14 pm


If “Noises Off,” Michael Frayn’s perfect geometric proof of backstage zaniness, isn’t the most ingeniously calibrated farce of the last few decades, then there’s an Einstein writing screwball mayhem who has somehow eluded my radar.

Art Manke’s production of this still-sparkling 1982 comedy, which opened Friday at South Coast Repertory, boasts a tireless ensemble that makes up in sweat what it lacks in seamlessness. This may not be the most meticulous display of theatrical tomfoolery you’ve ever seen, but the earnestness of the collective effort manages to just about do the trick.

Fortunately, the virtuoso choreography of door-slamming effects that Frayn orchestrates doesn’t need a whole lot of help to send an audience into a state of giddy euphoria. In fact, were the funniness compounded, the play would probably require a Surgeon General’s warning.

Here, the laughter is steady though never oxygen-depriving. You’ll titter just the way you’re supposed to do everything deliciously fun—in moderation.

Timothy_landfield_and_nancy_bell_in“Noises Off” begins with a dress rehearsal for “Nothing On,” which is an apt title for a British bedroom farce in which every scene seizes up in a logjam of entrances and exits. Worse, there isn’t a single prop—be it a telephone, a potted cactus or an infamous plate of sardines—that doesn’t conspire to turn this pathetic offering into an all-time fiasco.

The play within the play — a cheesy descendant of one of those tacky boulevard hits such as “No Sex Please, We’re British” — takes place in a grand country house, rendered in an attractive, purposefully nonsensical style by John Iacovelli. The cast of characters in this fictitious confection includes a housekeeper who just wants to put her feet up and watch a little telly, a real estate agent looking to have a little afternoon delight with a ditsy bombshell, the nervous tax-evading owner of the residence and his wife who have just secretly arrived from Spain for their anniversary and a blundering burglar out to bag a couple of heirloom candlesticks.

These parts are essayed by a bedraggled crew of British thespians whose offstage romantic turmoil rivals the ludicrous antics onstage. (As an added touch, Frayn offers droll playbill bios for these faux troupers.)

Divided into the three acts, “Noises Off” reaches its humorous crescendo in the second, where we’re given a behind- the-scenes view of a matinee performance of “Nothing On” during a stop on its whirlwind provincial tour. Jealousy, miscommunication and out-and-out incompetence unite to turn this engagement into a slapstick ballet, and Frayn’s logistical control is the equal of Balanchine’s.

The manner in which these two theatrical worlds fall into sync is truly a marvel. Frayn, whose more recent playwriting efforts (“Copenhagen” and “Democracy”) have delved into momentous historical subject matter, has an imagination that is as rambunctious as it is mathematical. Much of the pleasure of “Noises Off” comes from the ways the stage equation is so cunningly worked out.

Even in a production that lacks the crispness of dedicated farceurs — performers who know how to maximize pratfalls with seemingly little exertion — the enjoyment of the genre’s magnification of everyday waywardness shines through.

Noises_off_at_scrKandis Chappell, who plays Dotty Otley, a veteran looking to make a lucrative comeback, might set too sluggish an opening note. Her character can’t keep track of all the stage business expected of her in this new show (hang up the phone, pick up the plate of sardines, leave the newspaper). But despite Chappell’s listless execution, the hilarious ineptitude still has pop.

Bill Brochtrup, who received quite a cardio comic workout in Manke’s production of Alan Ayckbourn’s “Taking Steps” last season at SCR, gets to throw himself headlong into physical gags. Falling down a staircase is no problem, though there’s a strenuousness to his less daredevil maneuvers that slightly subtracts from the mirth.

As the temperamental sexpot, Jennifer Lyon has a few amusing eccentricities, including a short kick to announce her leggy presence. But her lingerie she prances around in has a Vegas air that doesn’t seem like the right smutty sensibility.

Not that Lloyd Dallas (Kaleo Griffith), the overwhelmed director of “Nothing On,” who’s attempting to appease his romantically aggrieved stage manager (Winslow Corbett) while enjoying some alone time with this beer commercial beauty — has any complaints.

But then it’s not always easy in this production of “Noises Off” to distinguish between what’s intentionally and inadvertently bad. Luckily, such distinctions are trivial when mania as merry as this prevails.

--Charles McNulty

Top photo: Bill Brochtrup, Kandis Chappell and Timothy Landfield in "Noises Off" at South Coast Repertory. Middle photo: Landfield and Nancy Bell. Bottom photo: Nick Ullett, Chappell, Bell, Landfield, Brochtrup and Jennifer Lyon. Credit: Christine Cotter / Los Angeles TImes