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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Noises Off

I'm starting to know what God felt like when he sat out there in the darkness, creating the world. — Lloyd
And what did he feel like, Lloyd my dear? — Belinda
Very pleased he'd taken his Valium. — Lloyd

Noises Off
Katie Fabel
(Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
If the summer weather has put a frown on your face, perhaps the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey can change that to a smile. They have transported us across the sea and onto the stage of the Grand Theater in Weston-super-Mare, England. Originally produced on Broadway in 1983 with a subsequent revival in 2001, Michael Frayn's ingeniously crafted farce Noises Off plants us smack in the middle of a sex farce called Nothing On.

A second-rate (to give them more credit than they deserve) troupe of actors is attempting, during a final frantic dress rehearsal, to tie up the loose ends (too many to list here) before curtain time. Helping them do just that is Lloyd Dallas (played with a formidably tortured tolerance by Andrew Weems). It hardly matters that you may have seen this classic antic-filled comedy before, as what goes on or what goes down is less important than what comes off.

Forgive me if I feel it still isn't the uproarious entertainment that its premise suggests. However, we can not put any of the blame for any lapses of fun on this mostly expertly integrated company of farceurs. If you do let yourself succumb to the circumscribed inanities of Act 1, comical rewards do appear in Act II.

In Act II, the play's action moves to the company's next stop on its provincial tour, viewed from a backstage perspective. Animosities, hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and a general disregard for their performing art become for Frayn's imbecilic characters a zany excuse for a silent-movie-style charade of pratfalls, booby traps, and cleverly executed sight gags that spill over directly to the performance in progress. As you might expect, innumerable bedroom, closet, and other extraneous doors have one thing in common, their faulty knobs, latches, and hinges. These are the attention-grabbing devices in designer Charlie Calvert's impressively made-for-traveling set that reveals the living room of the Brent's country home as well as the area directly behind the set in Act II.

But be prepared for diminishing returns in Act III, as the farce by then has gone on too long and is never able to top the fun of the preceding acts. You will, however, be amused until then by the inevitable appearance and disappearance of naughty lingerie and fallen trousers, the split-second entrances and exits, as well as missed cues and misplaced props. Not to be upstaged is an increasingly menacing plate of sardines, a treacherous cactus plant, and an almost animated telephone receiver, that have all been called into service.

The fun of this type of farce is to watch the characters respond to the utter confusion in which they become engulfed. Out to get each other short of murder most foul, the troupe in Act III is about to give a Wednesday matinee during the last leg of its tour. As members of the audience at the Municipal Theater, Stockton-On-Ties, we finally get to see a "regular" performance of Nothing On, as it hurtles toward self-destruction.

Director Paul Mullins has shaped the farce efficiently if also allowing the play's repetitive, protracted scenes overwhelm the best efforts of the actors. He does makes as much (non) sense out of the booby-trapped script, as can be expected. He is also abetted by stellar farceurs all. Harriet Harris, whose performances on Broadway in Old Acquaintance, Cry-Baby the Musical and Thoroughly Modern Millie (Tony Award) confirmed her as one of the theater's most accomplished comediennes, plays the role of Dotty Otley, the troupe's producer who is concurrently playing the role of a maid and having an affair with the juvenile lead. Harris sets the tone for the others as a funny bundle of insecurities.

Tackling their backstage flings with equally rib-tickling flair are Scott Barrow, as Garry Lejeune, Dotty's romantic interest, who can't complete a thought or a sentence; Katie Fabel as Brooke Ashton, the director's ditsy girlfriend, who drops her dress as frequently as her contact lenses; and Jessica Ires Morris, as Poppy Norton-Taylor, the harried stage manager and director's ex-love interest. Jack Moran is particularly endearing as Tim Algood, the terminally nonplused put upon assistant stage manager cum understudy.

Also hitting the comical mark is Matt Bradford Sullivan, as the dimwitted Frederick Fellow, who keeps insisting on plausible motivations for his character. What a delight Laila Robins is as Belinda Blair, the company's irrefutable grande dame. The spectacular picture hat she wears in her entrance makes this perfectly clear. Robins, who is returning for her 11th season at the Shakespeare Festival, is renowned for her emotionally intense roles in the plays by Williams, Chekhov, and Pinter. She appears to be having a ball sashaying full-throttle through this exercise in mid-summer madness. Edmond Genest, another STNJ regular (in his 14th season,) is a scene-stealer as the alcoholic old trouper, who wanders through the action with dazed senile assurance. If Noises Off runs out of steam by the final curtain, we are not about to dismiss all the fun that brought us to this point.

Noises Off
  By Michael Frayn
  Directed by Mullins

Cast: Harriet Harris (Dotty Otley), Andrew Weems (Lloyd Dallas), Scott Barrow (Garry Lejeune), Katie Fabel (Brooke Ashton), Jessica Ires Morris (Poppy Norton-Taylor), Matt Bradford Sullivan (Frederick Fellowes), Laila Robins (Belinda Blair), Jack Moran (Tim Allgood), Edmond Genest (Selsdon Mowbray).
  Set Designer: Charlie Calvert
  Costume Designer: Jacqueline Beckel
  Lighting Designer: Michael Giannitti
  Sound Designer: Steven L. Beckel
  Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes including two intermissions
  Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at the F. M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, 36 Madison Ave, Madison, N.J., located on the campus of Drew University.
  (973) 408 — 5600
  Tickets ($30 or $54)
  Performances: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Sundays at 7:30 PM; Thursday, Friday, Saturday evenings at 8 PM; Saturday, Sunday matinees at 2 PM.
  Opened 08/08/09
  Ends 08/30/09
  Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 08/08/09
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