by Michael Frayn
Playhouse Theatre Company
November 20-December 18
604-873-3311 or 604-280-3311

Noises Off is often called one of the funniest plays ever written, and for stretches of opening night at the Playhouse it was easy to understand why. When all the cylinders of Michael Frayn’s high octane farce-within-a-farce are firing in sync, the show is screamingly funny. At times I literally howled with laughter. By the end the audience should be limp, falling out of their seats. That I hadn’t quite hit the floor by the time the final curtain crashed down attests to the difficulty of maintaining this play’s demanding comic momentum.

Frayn takes us on tour with a third-rate English company whose approach to acting is to speak loudly and always mug. In the three acts of Noises Off we watch a dress rehearsal of their awful sex farce, Nothing On, where we learn what should happen in that country house with its eight doors to the dozy housekeeper with her plates of sardines, a tax-evading couple, another just wanting to get laid, the inept burglar, and the Arab sheik. We see a matinee a month later from backstage, where what should happen onstage just barely happens because the jealousies, love affairs and bad habits of cast and crew create a backstage farce of its own—told in furious mime—that preoccupies them when they should be attending to their cues. By closing week the show has fallen completely apart. Phones ring after they’re picked up, trousers fall down when they shouldn’t, props appear in the wrong places, entrances are missed, no one knows where in the script they’re supposed to be anymore. It’s the actor’s nightmare, and when everything is properly malfunctioning it’s hilarious.

A talented Playhouse cast does terrific comic work. David Mackay is astonishingly funny as the leading man, from his bad ‘70s wig to his exaggeratedly confident body language, full of advice yet breathtakingly inarticulate, and violently jealous when he thinks the other male lead (a delightfully fragile David Marr) is having it off with his woman, the mildly addled, over-the-hill star (Nora McLellan). Mackay’s sex partner in Nothing On is the ingenue, played by Melissa Poll wide-eyed and very broadly, her clueless, coarse-acting innocence often showstoppingly funny. She spends most of the show in her underwear, forever losing her contact lenses when she’s not doing exercises or sulking about her affair with the jaded director (the excellent Ari Cohen), who is juggling her and the emotional assistant stage manager (Luisa Jojic). Bernard Cuffling underplays the hard-of-hearing old boozehound actor to great comic effect. Stephen Holmes as the harried stage manager and Laara Sadiq as the steadiest cast member, who at one point has to improvise a scene with a mop in place of her missing stage husband, round out the first-rate company.

The show looks great, too. Its country house set by Pam Johnson and garish costumes by Nancy Bryant are intentionally and extravagantly tacky. Director Dean Paul Gibson deserves a lot of credit for keeping this hugely complicated comic machine hurtling headlong through the carefully controlled chaos that is farce for so much of its two and a half hours. The show stalls sometimes where Gibson’s comic business is repetitive or insufficiently imaginative, in the second act mime especially, or where the actors need a few more runs to nail down the split-second timing, or where the English accents combine with poor projection to make dialogue hard to hear. Once they get all this right, audiences will indeed be picking themselves up off the floor.

Jerry Wasserman

last updated: Tuesday, December 28, 2004 8:18 PM
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