BWW Reviews: Laughter Abounds in NOISES OFF at Carrollwood Players Theatre
What is the funniest play ever written? Opinions obviously vary, but I would certainly pick one of the following nominees: The Pyramus and Thisbe scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream; She Stoops to Conquer; School for Scandal; The Odd Couple; What the Butler Saw; A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; The Foreigner; The Producers; Moon Over Buffalo; Spamalot; Rumours; or The Book of Mormon. Many people believe that Michael Frayn's hilarious farce, NOISES OFF, should be at the top of that laugh list.
The Carrollwood Players Theatre's production of this 1982 show-within-a-show classic is definitely worth your time to see. It's not perfect with some key shortcomings, but Frayn's hilariously silly dialogue as well as the sidesplitting sight gags showcased in Act 2 shine through. It's a show that is very difficult to mount, and not every community theatre has the ability to put it on properly. So my hat goes off to the Carrollwood Players for their attempt at such a difficult piece, for their incredible set, for their cast's obvious joy in performing, and for their success in making the audience laugh. A lot.
NOISES OFF opens at a final rehearsal of a really bad sex farce called "Nothing On." (Make sure to check the program for all the details of the faux cast and crew of this show-within-a-show.) The cast gets confused as to whether a plate of sardines goes offstage or on, what to do with a phone receiver, and so on, much to the disgruntlement of the huffy director, Lloyd Dallas (Stephen LeFranc). Now that we know the ins and outs of "Nothing On," Act 2 shows us the backstage shenanigans of this motely crew of performers, as their personal relationships come to a head while "Nothing On" continues. Their silent mayhemic infighting featuring bottles and an axe being passed around is like something out of an Ernie Kovacs routine. And Act 3 shows "Nothing On" once again, but this time on a very bad performance day when the cast has just about had it with each other. Plates of sardines get misplaced; door handles fall off; the cast never does get the phone right; and injuries become the rule not the exception. It's great fun, and if you have ever been onstage or worked backstage at a theatre, you will laugh especially hard at the situations at hand.
The performances fluctuate from extraordinary to average. The standout is LeFranc as the exasperated director, Lloyd Dallas. Not only does he attempt a British accent throughout, but he is a burst of energy whenever he's onstage. He bellows, an intimidating directorial blowhard, like Otto Preminger directing a show so shallow, it makes "Three's Company" look like La Regle du jeu. His diatribe at the end of Act 1 is a thing of beauty. But my favorite moment occurs earlier, when he wanders around the audience, quietly watching the unwinding of his horrible play-within-a-play. There are moments when he doesn't say anything, but he's always in character, always in the moment, always pacing, silently watching with seething dread the aesthetic catastrophe that he's been responsible for guiding.
Also quite good is Pat Connolly as Selsdon Mowbray, the alcohol-imbibing actor who just can't get his entrances right (he plays the bumbling burglar in "Nothing On"). Sara Connolly Eberhard as Dotty Otley nicely separates her Cockney accent (as the character in the play-within-a-play, Mrs. Clackett) and her real-life American one. I wish the rest of the cast followed her lead here (although the whole show is supposed to be British, at least with Ms. Connolly Eberhard we get two distinctive characters--the actress and the part she's playing; this wasn't always the case with some of the cast).
The accents, or lack thereof, become a distraction. NOISES OFF is a British farce, and the script has not been Americanized. When a character mentions a "ladies loo" in an American accent, you know something is not quite right. Many of the actors didn't even try for a middle ground. I'm sure it might have been determined that it would be best to have no accent at all rather than bad British accents, but if that's the case, it doesn't make sense to do a British farce of this caliber and to dispose of even weak attempts at speaking British. It's off-putting to listen to someone say "W.C." in an American dialect; imagine "Private Lives" performed with Southern drawls or "L'il Abner" in proper British to understand how jarring this is.
Still, farce is all about the timing, and the doors closing and opening and closing and opening is all done without a hitch. It's marvelous fun. The entire cast should be commended on their physical daring (Thomas Pahl as Garry Lejeune gets special mention for a wonderfully choreographed spill down the stairs that garnered some applause). The director, Carlyn Postle, keeps the hilarity moving along, and Bob Moran's sound works quite well. The costumes, by Sara Connolly Eberhard and the cast, are appropriate.
The set is a technical marvel (thanks to the creative genius of James Cass and Keith Postle) and works perfectly for the space at hand. It is scrumptious and quaint, with lots of doors ready to be slammed by an increasingly confused cast. Usually the NOISES OFF set is one large contraption that rotates to show the backstage and then rotates again to show the front. But Carrollwood has a small but efficient stage, and that would be extremely difficult to do in such a limited space. The set designers' solution was ingenious: To have the stage within a stage for Act 1; dismantle the set at the first intermission and turn it backwards to show the backstage; and then spend the next intermission between Acts 2 and 3 putting it back to where it was in Act 1. At one point the crew left the curtain open and the audience got a chance to see the machinations in the dismantling and reassembling of the set as well as the number of people working hard in an endeavor like this. The audience was so appreciative of this behind-the-scenes peek that it burst into spontaneous applause when it was finished before Act 3.
Even with its flaws, the great play that is NOISES OFF pushes through, and the mirth never stops. The audience was in convulsive laughter for much of it, especially when they were caught up in the uproarious antics of Act 2. So, the question remains: Is it the funniest play of all time? My verdict is still out, but see it at the Carrollwood Players and decide for yourself.
NOISES OFF plays until August 2nd. For tickets, please call (813) 265-4000.
Photo Credit: Picture This of Palma Ceia.