Call a play a farce and it damn well better be funny. Michael Frayn's Noises Off is far and away the farciest of all modern farces. Full of slamming doors, sexy girls, mistaken identities and stray plates of sardines, Noises Off has been setting the standard for feather-light theatrical comedy for three decades now. More about Theatre Arlington's slap-up production of it in a moment.
But first a swipe at Melancholy Play: A Contemporary Farce, now on at Upstart Productions at the Design District black-box space, The Green Zone. Its playwright, Sarah Ruhl, still in her 30s, has been blessed by the theater gods with many high honors, including a half-million-dollar MacArthur "genius grant." But Ruhl doesn't know funny from a hole in the ground. Her mirthless plays make you want to dig a hole and tunnel your way out of the theater. Forty-five minutes into Melancholy, still waiting for the comedy to start, you'll still have another 45 laugh-less minutes to go before sweet escape.
Ruhl's plays, and she's written lots (among them, Dead Man's Cell Phone, The Vibrator Play, Eurydice), should be studied by physicists. Her dialogue seems to bend time, slowing it, folding it back in on itself. Her plays already have something in common with string theory, managing to be both dense and one-dimensional.
Think Anton Chekhov is tedious? He's a laugh-a-minute funmeister compared with Sarah Ruhl.
Melancholy Play is from 2001, early in the Ruhl oeuvre but a clear indicator that she is ham-handed at writing humor. It's not a "contemporary farce," no, not at all. If it's something label-able, it's absurdist. Sloppy, unpolished, excruciatingly unfunny absurdism. With a cello.
A girl named Tilly (played at Upstart by the lovely Natalie Young) tells her therapist Lorenzo (Brian Witkowicz) that she's sad. He falls in love with her. She tells her hairdresser (Diana Gonzalez) that she's sad. The hair lady falls in love with Tilly, too, as does the hairdresser's lesbian lover, a nurse named Joan (Lulu Ward). A tailor (Duane Deering) likewise is smitten with the unhappy Tilly.
All the adoration makes Tilly happy and the rest of them sad. Tilly skips around holding a red balloon. The gang plays the children's game "Duck, Duck, Goose" and some gentle Sapphic cuddling ensues. There is also some screaming and singing to cello music. (The onstage cellists are The Polyphonic Spree's Buffi Jacobs and Hockaday School music teacher Vilma Peguero, alternating performances.)
The actors all are fine, meaning everyone speaks at an audible level and no one trips over any furniture. Director Jonathan Taylor has spread the action up and down the stairs on designer Rachel Rouse's found-object scenery, which is interesting for about six and a half seconds.
Here's what happens at the end of 90 long minutes: A character turns into a salted almond. The other characters talk to the almond, wondering if they are also almonds. Tilly licks the almond. The almond turns back into a person. The end.
Bonjour, tristesse, and nuts to all that.
Laughs, big ones, belly-crunching, thigh-slapping, gasp-for-oxygen laughs, are what you want from a farce. You'll get the giggles, guaranteed, at Theatre Arlington's whizbang Noises Off, directed by Andy Baldwin, star of many of Circle Theatre's broad comedies over the past few seasons.
Frayn's brilliant play is a paean to stage props and crack comic timing. With characters running up and down stairs, bobbing out of doors and windows like cuckoos out of clocks and intentionally tumbling over couches, tables and their own dropped trousers, any slip-ups could be dangerous. The play then shows what happens when all goes wrong.
The first act of Noises Off finds a ninth-rate company of players in the final moments of a prolonged dress rehearsal for a typical British sex comedy called Nothing On. Their director (played by the delightfully wry and rumpled Ben Phillips) is at the end of his tether. If he can put Nothing On on, he's off to direct Richard III. But first he has to get over the hump of a bad play and the bad actors in it.
In the second act, we see what happens backstage as the six performers in Nothing On try to act comedy out front while keeping an ongoing feud between cast members from erupting into violence behind the curtain. (Jack Hardaway's two-story scenery at Theatre Arlington turns its back on the audience for this part.) For the third short act, the Nothing On bunch, turned around to face us again, is winding up their long road tour, with cues blown, relationships soured and the play-within-the-play reduced to a shambles.
It has to move at a breathless pace to achieve maximum farce-ity, and Baldwin keeps his cast jumping like the stage is on fire. Shane Beeson makes some hilariously swift moves as the dim-bulb male ingénue, Gary Lejeune, who speaks in incomplete sentences and, like, well ... you know. Like that. Playing the dim bim opposite him is Mikaela Krantz, built like a beautiful, pale stick insect and, costumed in tiny triangles of green lingerie, the funniest undressed actress of the year so far.
All the others — Krista Scott as the actress playing the sardine-juggling maid, Sherry Hopkins as the gossipy leading lady, Brad Stephens as a method actor given to nosebleeds under stress, Michael James as the dipsomaniacal old Shakespearean, Robin Daniel as the crazed stage manager and Eric Dobbins as the sleep-deprived stagehand — are the top of the tip of comedy goodness. (Their mispronunciation of the English town "Basingstoke" is a tiny but fixable flaw. It should take the long "A.")
Other productions of Noises Off around here have suffered from size problems. Too often they were spread across a big stage (like the one at WaterTower Theatre), which ruins the tight timing needed for comedy choreography. Theatre Arlington's small-ish space fits the play to a farthing, putting the audience close enough to catch all the subtle tosses of props and angry looks in the pantomime-heavy second act, but far enough away to take in the whole picture.
Frayn, hailed as the master of English farce after Noises Off premiered in 1982, would go on to write more brilliant plays; one about physicists, Copenhagen, and then the drama Democracy, about German chancellor Willy Brandt. But it's this comedy that's performed most often. Hardly a season goes by without a production of it in a Dallas or Fort Worth theater, and it's a rare treat to see it done as well as they're doing it in Arlington.
Noises Off is so efficient and smart, commenting on the silliness of British sex-coms but showing how hard it is to do one. It's all so complicated, says Noises Off character Gary Lejeune: "We've got bags. We've got boxes. Plus doors. Plus words."
Giving Frayn his due, let's move words to the top of that list.