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The first act of Noises Off, Michael Frayn’s durable farce-within-a-farce, takes place during a disastrous dress rehearsal. The production currently running at Two River Theater (TRT) in Red Bank, New Jersey, too often feels like one itself.
The play in question is called Nothing On, and it’s meant to parody the risible sex comedies that once dominated London and its environs, like The Bed Before Yesterday and There’s a Girl in My Soup. Frayn came of age in that world and approaches the task with a gimlet eye. Noises Off overflows with broadly drawn stock figures in both its onstage and backstage settings, each fulfilling a particular, recognizable British archetype.
Understanding two worlds
I’ve seen the 1982 play so often I could probably sub into any of its roles in an emergency, and it remains one of the funniest plays ever written. (Walnut Street Theatre presented a satisfying staging last spring, and it’s been on Broadway twice since 2000.) But it doesn’t work without an innate understanding of the world it presents — not just the leering, trope-laden farce itself but the squabbling and petty backbiting that accompany putting up a show. TRT’s production, directed with a general lack of timing and taste by Sarna Lapine, never hits on the right balance.
The script’s pesky first act — a cross between an Italian run and a dark night of the soul — brims with controlled chaos. Actors forget lines, doors slam imprecisely, and secrets are whispered from one cast member to another. On the eve of the first public performance, the play builds a sense of tension — will this motley company pull things together in time for curtain?
Lacking a light touch
Here, that never seems anything less than a certainty. Television star Dotty Otley (Ellen Harvey) and journeyman actor Garry Lejeune (Michael Crane) dry up a bit too deliberately — sure, they neglect their props and move awkwardly around Charlie Corcoran’s rickety set, but they do so in an overly choreographed manner. Bubbly ingénue Brooke Ashton (Adrianna Mitchell) loses her contact lenses on cue, but the struggle to find them never seems like a life-or-death situation.
Frayn’s script requires little more than a light touch to produce an uproarious evening — the genuinely witty jokes and subtle physical humor sell themselves. So it’s jarring to watch the company here work so hard and achieve so little.
Noises Off endures
Some of the actors manage to emerge from the muddle with fully formed performances: Philip Goodwin nails the old-ham mannerisms of Selsdon Mowbray, the troupe’s resident drunk, and Phillip Taratula interestingly shirks the usual puppy-dog cuteness of Tim Allgood, the harried stage manager. Gopal Divan cuts an appropriately suave figure as Lloyd Dallas, the waggish director, though his growing sense of frustration fails to register properly.
Landing after landing fails to stick as the performance continues. A crucial awareness of the shift between the world of the farce and the play itself never gets established, and the actors use slapdash physical comedy to overcompensate. In the second act, the parade of largely silent backstage antics that occur during an abortive matinee in the backwater town of Goole comes across as overstated and imprecise. (The actor and circus artist Lorenzo Pisoni is credited as the production’s movement coordinator.)
Similarly, the exasperated humor of the final act — set during the tour’s final performance, by which point the crew has given up any sense of propriety — seems a long slog rather than a tongue-in-cheek examination of the erosion of professionalism. Because the proceedings up to this point have been so overexaggerated, the play loses the feeling that it’s been building to a moment of abandon. For the first time, I grew impatient to hear the cathartic final line: “Blackout!”
Noises Off will endure beyond substandard stagings — and more likely than not, we won’t have to wait too long to see it again. In its current iteration, though, it falls a few doors short of a successful farce.
What, When, Where
Noises Off. By Michael Frayn, Sarna Lapine directed. Through February 3, 2019, at Two River Theater, 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank, New Jersey. (732) 345-1400 or tworivertheater.org.
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