Magnum Farce

A good production of a good play about a bad production of a bad play is the tricky part of staging Noises Off. Michael Frayn's three-act inside joke about the delicate nuances of live theater—and what happens when absolutely everything goes awry—is getting decent laughs in a polished, if not fall-down funny, production at Fort Worth's Stage West.

From the program-inside-the-program for Nothing On, the comedy-within-a-comedy, comes the first indication that this will be a farce of many layers. The faux credits provide bios of the C-level English actors who the Stage West actors are playing. "Frederick Fellowes," it says, "was most recently seen in the controversial all-male production of Trojan Women." The leading lady, who's also put her own savings into the show, is one of those Britcom staples along the lines of Mollie Sugden, the purple-haired harridan behind the ladies' lingerie counter on Are You Being Served?

Scene 1 of Noises Off is also the opening scene of Nothing On, a frothy, slightly risqué English sex comedy of the type that used to be favored on the dinner theater circuit. A phone rings in a stately country manse and a frowsy housekeeper, Mrs. Clackett (Pam Daugherty), waddles out to answer it. Her side of the conversation provides exposition. The homeowner, a wealthy playwright (there's some humor right there), and his wife have fled to Spain as tax exiles. He's selling the house. A prospective buyer, an Arab sheik, is expected to come by with the broker for a look-see.

Before Mrs. Clackett can settle down on the couch to nibble sardines and watch the trooping of the royal colors on the Beeb, she's interrupted. Off she goes through a side door when in through the front door bursts the randy estate agent, Mr. Tramplemain (Mark Shum), hoping to grab a quick shag with his girlfriend, tax clerk Vicki (Allison Pistorius). No sooner have they disappeared into an upstairs bedroom when the playwright (Linus Craig) and his missus (Tracy Leigh) sneak in to celebrate their anniversary before heading back to hide on the Continent.

Every entrance and exit is a near miss, including the break-in by an elderly burglar (Jerry Russell) trying to make off with the TV and the silverware. Somehow Vicki ends up stranded center stage in her panties, and the homeowner glues his hands to a plate of sardines before nearly burning his privates off with acid. If a stage version of The Ropers is your cuppa, then it's a marathon of merry madcap mayhem.

That is, if everything goes as it should. But Frayn has made sure that it doesn't. A few lines into that first act, the actors-playing-actors are interrupted by their director, Lloyd Dallas (Alex Chrestopoulos), who's sitting in the audience watching their final "dress rehearsal" before the tour that will take Nothing On to unglam spots around Blighty such as Weston-super-Mare and Stockton-on-Tees. Lloyd's frazzled by his third-rate cast's fourth-rate performances in a fifth-rate comedy. "It's all about doors and sardines," he keeps reminding them as they stumble through a rotten run-through that threatens to welcome the dawn.

The first act sets up relationships among the Noises Off characters that will play out in the near-silent second act, which finds the actors backstage a month into the Nothing On production amid petty squabbles, romantic entanglements, drunken fistfights and other thespianic shenanigans as they perform for an audience of old-age pensioners. By the third act, with Nothing On wobbling toward the end of the tour, it's back to that first act, now devolved into a circus of forgotten lines, improvised business and bungled entrances.

With the preparation of the first two-thirds of Noises Off (the title refers to stage directions indicating sounds coming from the wings), we're up on who's supposed to be doing and saying what to whom in the fake play. That's the genius of Frayn's framing of the action. Unlike the actors in Nothing On, we become well-versed on the intricate choreography involving doors and sardines.

Every regional theater wants to do Noises Off—comedies in summer sell better than dramas—and many around here have done it, including a fairly recent production at WaterTower in Addison. Few theaters, however, do it to perfection. The thing requires expert execution at every level. Those heavy set pieces have to be reversed for that backstage second act. Actors must have split-second timing and withstand horrendous physical demands—pratfalls, repeatedly running up and down the stairs, dodging in and out of dual roles.

When he's Mr. Tramplemain, the sexy real estate seller, Dallas actor Mark Shum puts on the gloss of a nervous gigolo; then as British actor Garry Lejeune, Shum instantly transitions to the personality of a toffee-brained, insecure male ingénue, ending every unfinished sentence with either "you know" or a vacant flap of his hands.

Shum does his double-act better than anyone in the Stage West cast. His is also the most gymnastic role. In the second act, his Garry character is the victim of a vicious prank that sends him frantically hopping up and down the backstage steps with his shoelaces tied together. He takes a fine tumble down the stairs and comes up for air. Great stuff.

Almost everyone has his or her moment of high-end hilarity in Noises Off—this script would be funny if it were performed by sock puppets—but overall the Stage West production tends to sag a tad where it should be tight and bright. Pam Daugherty comes off tired and exasperated in every role she plays, and that works when she's Mrs. Clackett, but not when she's "Dotty Otley," the aging TV star hoping Nothing On will be her comeback vehicle. As skin-baring tart Vicki and as Brooke, the bit of fluff playing her, Pistorius isn't daffy enough by half. (In the mostly terrible 1992 movie version directed by Peter Bogdanovich, the only one who got the tone right was, believe it or not, Nicolette Sheridan, who made Vicki/Brooke a sweet but idiotic bombshell.)

As the ever-frazzled but always frisky director Lloyd (he's diddling two actresses AND the pretty stage manager), Alex Chrestopoulos retreats when he should attack. Lloyd is one Paxil away from a breakdown as he watches his final dress rehearsal of Nothing On disintegrate before him. If ever an actor had license to roar, it's with Lloyd. But at Stage West, Chrestopoulos is so subtle with reactions he could be doing Beckett. He's also a bit of a mumbler, making him hard to hear from the back of the house.

Jerry Russell, the boss at Stage West, gets some fine bits of business as the hard-of-hearing but strong-of-drinking Selsdon Mowbray, the old actor playing the burglar who consistently disappears right before his entrance cue and then blows his crucial, act-ending line.

Tech- and design-wise, this Noises Off is way off. Scenic designer Jim Covault, who also directed this production, has made the main room in the playwright's home antiseptically bare. The lumber on the staircase is more fishing cabin than country mansion. And why are there eight doors on this set when the script calls for seven? (Odd numbers being funnier than even.)

Covault also has gone fuzzy on the physical comedy the second act depends upon. In wild pantomime the Nothing On cast juggles among them a fire axe, several bouquets, a bottle of booze, plates of sardines and other props. But the Stage West bunch does it like sleight of hand instead of the more visual Roman comedy slapstick that would get bigger laughs.

Covault has also done the costumes. Our sympathies to the pretty Miss Pistorius, stuck in the tightest, ugliest underthings imaginable.

The message of Noises Off, if there is one, is that sometimes the worst productions stick in the memory longer than the best. As flabby as Stage West's attempt at farce can be at times, it's still good professional theater. Not at all like that Dracula that once played on a Dallas stage, where the actors kept forgetting to use the door to the castle and instead walked on and off around the edge of the set. Or Some Like It Hot at the Music Hall, starring a doddering Tony Curtis, who had to be supported by chorus boys under each arm just to walk downstage, where he read his lines haltingly from large video screens placed stage right and stage left.

As memorable as these were, it helps when both cast and audience are in on the joke.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner