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Kicking off its 44th season—and laughing all the way—Delaware Theatre Company has mounted a spirited production of that great farce Noises Off. An audience favorite, this theatrical staple is a favorite of actors, too. British playwright Michael Frayn conceived the idea for the now-iconic script while watching (from the wings) a performance of a farce he’d written for noted actor Lynn Redgrave. He realized that the backstage antics required to keep a farce aloft were as funny as what was happening onstage.
Descent into chaos
Directed at a breakneck pace by Philadelphia’s Jennifer Childs (making her DTC debut here), the play’s three acts (which she telescoped into two) open on an ill-fated technical rehearsal (where the director and technicians set all the show’s cues). It’s midnight the day before opening night, but this show (ostensibly a sex farce called Nothing On) is nowhere near ready. It’s massively disorganized, and its cast is supremely unprepared.
Speaking over the God mic from the back of the house, temperamental director Lloyd Dallas (David Bardeen) tries to corral his hopelessly scattered actors. Top-billed TV star Dotty Otley (Grace Gonglewski) can’t remember her blocking, and she’s having an affair with Garry Lejeune (Justin Jain), her much younger and often comically incoherent leading man. He’s paired onstage with inexperienced ingenue-of-sorts Brooke Ashton (Elise Hudson), who’s having an affair with Lloyd and parrots her lines on cue no matter what else is going on.
The daffy company also includes the almost-suave Frederick Fellowes (Ian Merrill Peakes), whose inane questions and constant nosebleeds often stop the action; beleaguered stage managers Poppy Norton (Bi Jean Ngo) and Tim Allgood (Brenson Thomas); Selsdon Mowbray (Anthony Lawton), a hard-of-hearing elderly pro always on the lookout for booze; and Belinda Blair (Karen Peakes), the company’s resident Pollyanna and peacemaker.
Act I ends in total confusion, but the production does somehow limp forward because, in Act II, we’re at a matinee performance a month later. As the set revolves to show the theater’s back-of-house, the cast’s shenanigans become increasingly desperate, and their relationships deteriorate. Here, the company employs hilarious and elaborate pantomimes in trying to keep the show on track and remain unheard by the audience. As the third act begins, the set revolves again, and we see a performance near the end of the run, when the show is in total chaos, and its actors abandon the plot entirely.
Director Childs has an assured hand with this type of material, and the first-rate cast is uniformly up to whatever zany tasks she asks of them. It’s a true theatrical marathon, run with perfectly timed clockwork abandon. The show’s breakneck pace, however, left some plot details in the comic dust, with jokes, pratfalls, and sight gags coming so fast and furiously that there was little time for the audience to absorb them. With a company this experienced, the pace will probably even out as the run proceeds.
Every actor in this company has a moment of mad comic glory, but two highlights (or lowlights) are Jain’s incredible slide down a flight of stairs and Lawton’s inspired clowning: he can seemingly stop the show at will with his antics or simply by doing nothing at all. And one of the pleasures of Noises Off is that every so often, you’re not quite sure if what you see is what’s actually supposed to happen.
Necessary for any farce, the DTC set has the required plethora of doors, eight of them here. They puncture and punctuate Colin McIlvaine’s hardworking, picture-imperfect set with its props and hazards that trip up every unsuspecting character. Technically, the show’s lights (Alyssandra Docherty), costumes (Ariel Wang), and sound design (Christopher Colucci) all hit the required farcical notes. But as funny as it is, this show does have a convoluted and quite British plot, and the printed program was missing the act/scene time-and-place delineations that could have answered some of the audience’s questions about the play’s internal logistics.
A challenging staple
Though it’s enormously challenging to direct and produce, Noises Off has nonetheless become a staple of both amateur and professional theater, with many starry iterations over its 40-year history. London’s original West End production (opening in 1982) ran for five years, and the 1983 Broadway production played over 500 performances. Though some of the play’s language is dated and some of the farcical situations border on the inappropriate, it still remains one of the most popular plays of the past 40 years.
The phrase “noises off” refers to the dramaturgical stage direction that cues an offstage sound, and it’s a phrase now almost as iconic as Shakespeare’s famous directive, “exit, pursued by a bear.” In DTC’s welcome fall opener, the exits are pursued, prefaced, and inundated by the play’s myriad gags and pratfalls, and you can’t help but cheer this undaunted and excellent cast as they flail and fly (all planned!) around the stage. They’re clearly having so much fun, and it’s my guess that you will, too.
What, When, Where
Noises Off. By Michael Frayn, directed by Jennifer Childs. $32-$70. Through October 8, 2023, at Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, Wilmington. (302) 594-1100 or delawaretheatre.org.
DTC is a wheelchair-accessible venue with wireless assistive listening and large-print programs available. For wheelchair seating, notify the box office. Free parking is adjacent to the theater, which is a short walk from the Wilmington train station, serviced by SEPTA and Amtrak.
Masks are not required.
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