BWW Reviews: NOISES OFF Ushers In The Totem Pole 2013 Season With Laughs
Any play described by Frank Rich as "the funniest play written in my lifetime" must have something going for it. When that play is Michael Frayn's NOISES OFF, the "something" is pretty much everything. Containing as it does one of the most convulsively hysterical acts in theatre history, it is one of those plays that has, at least in its book, absolutely nothing wrong with it... except every disaster that's about to occur on stage. Frayn's 1982 West End hit, brought to Broadway in 1983 with Dorothy Loudon and Victor Garber, is currently at Totem Pole Playhouse in Fayetteville, directed by the DC area's Michael Rhea, and, fortuitously, disasters will ensue for the duration of the show.
To call NOISES OFF a farce is to call Shakespeare a competent playwright - it barely scratches the surface. Eight doors and a hinged double window, plus the theatre's wings, are visual evidence to any theatergoer that this is farce taken to a higher level than almost any others have reached. When authors declare farce the highest form of theatrical comedy, they are thinking of Frayn.
The show's conceit is simple; it is a play within a play. A theatrical troupe of less than stellar talents, under the direction of the authoritarian but not necessarily organized director Lloyd Dallas (Paris Peet of Shippensburg University and of some serious theatrical credentials, whose Dallas possesses just enough "fading charm" to avoid having any of the women in the troupe slap him), is attempting to, in the first act, survive the dress rehearsal of the abominable play "Nothing On," a farce whose script should be, but has not been, torched. Between elder theatrical statesman and alcoholic Selsden Mowbray (Wil Love, about whom enough good things can rarely be said), frazzled and very possibly pregnant assistant stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor (a charming Liz Dutton), thoroughly overworked stage manager and understudy-of-all-male-parts Tim Allgood (Bradley Foster Smith, a veteran of DC's Keegan Theatre, as is director Rhea), and a troupe of neurotic, self-absorbed - especially Brooke Ashton (Broadway veteran Jane Labanz, who makes spending most of the time on stage in lingerie look easy), disaster does far more than lurk.
Paul Slade Smith (veteran of the Broadway tour of WICKED as well as farce expert - he's penned the newer, and also hilarious, UNNECESSARY FARCE) plays the squeamish Freddy Fellowes with a distinct flair for physical comedy, while Tim Falter as actor Garry Lejeune gives the stage a show-stopping Wile E Coyote-like trip down a staircase, as well as some delicious moments with a fire axe in Act Two. Susan Thornton, a Totem Pole veteran, makes sardines unforgettable - except to her -- as she plays actress Dotty Otley, whose character in the troupe's play is the befuddled housekeeper. Erin Noel Grennan as troupe member Belinda Blair brings up the rear only because Belinda is, somehow, the only vaguely sensible person in the entire atrocious affair.
Possibly because Act Two is quite possibly the most frenetic, maniacal piece of comedy in theatre, the other acts feel slightly slow in comparison, but there's little to grumble about - should you take the time to try, you'll likely miss such delights as Tim Allgood's understudy moments, Garry Lejeune's hopping backstage, Brooke Ashton's lingerie-clad "meditations" and her even more frightening missing contact lens, the telephone of doom, and assorted menacing plates of sardines. Freddy's not-unfounded fears of strategic acid burns and Selsden Mowbray's "naps" might also be neglected, and Belinda's efforts to hide whisky and dangerous objects might not be noticed.
Specific praise must go to scenic designer James Fouchard and to props master Mariah Ray for the set - front and back - and the accompanying set dressing and props. Totem Pole, along with the Fulton Theatre and Rainbow Dinner Theatre, usually excels in this region in these matters, and this is no exception. Artistic director Ray Ficca should be well satisfied with their work.
Although there are a few slow moments in the first act, they are completely overshadowed by the perfect rapid pacing of the second. (As for the third, all wrong pacing and bad timing on stage is completely intended. It's supposed to be the theatrical equivalent of the Hindenberg disaster.)
At Totem Pole through June 9. Call 717-352-2164 or visit www.totempoleplayhouse.org for tickets.
Photo credit: Totem Pole Playhouse