In 1970, Michael Frayn, the English playwright who would go on to write “Noises Off,” was standing backstage in the wings watching a performance of another farce he had written, “The Two of Us.” Of this performance, he said, “It was funnier from behind than in front, and I thought that one day I must write a farce from behind.” By the late 70s, Frayn had taken a crack at the concept with a short-lived one-act play called “Exits” before fleshing out and expanding the piece into the hilarious three-act “Noises Off,” whose title is taken from the theatrical stage direction indicating sounds coming from offstage.
The play opened in 1982 in London to universally ecstatic reviews and ran until 1987 with five successive casts. Called the funniest farce ever written, “Noises Off” presents a manic menagerie of itinerant British actors rehearsing a flop called “Nothing’s On.” Doors slamming, on and offstage intrigue, and errant sardines all figure in the plot of this hilarious and classically comic play.
The cast features Megan Blakeley, Joanna Churgin, Raymond Donahey, Scott Gerard, Ellie Jepperson, Jeffrey McCrann, David Narloch, Taylor Pyles and Don Warburton. Each of these actors is to be commended for their boundless energy and great skill at physical humor, especially with all the dual-level entrances and exits at breakneck speed. Timing is everything in a farce and this cast, thanks to the brilliant direction by William Wilday, never misses a beat – even when we were supposed to think they have.
Act one takes place onstage at the final dress rehearsal of “Nothing’s On” and the cast is hopelessly unready. Baffled by entrances and exits, missed cues, missed lines, and bothersome props including several plates of sardines, they continually stop to ask the frustrated director (Raymond Donahey) for assistance even though it is after midnight with the show opening that evening.
During the first intermission, the entire set is turned completely around, and in Act Two we see the performance a month later uniquely from backstage, which gives the audience a glimpse into the offstage shenanigans as well as the onstage bedlam. Director William Wilday’s double-sided, double-level set is marvelously functional with actors constantly running up and down stairs, slamming doors, and grabbing props hanging backstage which we recognize from watching the final dress rehearsal onstage in the first act.
During the second intermission leading into Act Three, the set is again turned around so we see a performance onstage near the end of the fictional tenweek run when personal friction has continued to increase. So in essence, “Nothing On” is staged three times with each performance sinking lower into the depths of a staged nightmare generating laughs galore. As the shenanigans mount and the play begins to unravel, it is the actors, each one of them incredibly physically agile, who make this farce come alive.
Joanna Churgin’s English manor maid Dotty is scatteredbrained but good-hearted. Dotty is an investor in the show and the most seasoned of the performers, but if she cannot remember what she needs to do onstage, the play will fall apart. Churgin is a wonder as the action progresses as misplaced props lead her to take the plot of the play into her own hands while attempting to deal with an ax, bucket and mop, whiskey bottle, telephone receiver, newspaper, or several plates of sardines needing to be taken off or onstage at specific times, the order of which she cannot seem to remember. And when she realizes another cast member if after her man, all I can say is watch out!
David Narloch is a genius with physical comedy, effortlessly at ease with pratfalls, charging after rival actors with an ax, or dropping his trousers around his ankles and hopping up a flight of stairs as the audience roared with laughter.
Raymond Donahey channels every frustrated director at his wits end as Lloyd Dallas trying to deal with actors ill-equipped to bring his vision of “Nothing On” to life. Doing his best to save his reputation, Lloyd decides to personally try and save the play as it flounders during Act III, but the repercussions of his actions seem to cause the poor man to suffer a nervous breakdown when all the actors turn to him to save the day.
Megan Blakeley is Belinda Blair, the actress portraying the lady of the manor who honestly tries to fix things but seems to make everything worse with her efforts. She truly proves leaving well enough alone, even when things go wrong, might be the best solution to avert disaster. Her timing needs to be impeccable during Act III as one misstep would completely ruin the planned confusion, and Blakesley never missed a beat.
Don Warburton masterfully will have you believing he has a real drinking problem, is hard of hearing, or just likes to play games with people so he won’t have to work too hard. His dancing moves around the stage while capturing a whiskey bottle and hiding it from the probing eyes of the cast will have you in stitches.
Tall, dark and handsome Scott Gerard never seems to finish a sentence as Garry Lejeune, the leading man. His hysterical struggles to run in and out of the correct doors at the right time are enhanced by the lovely Ellie Jepperson as leading lady Brooke Ashton who naturally flaunts her body in sexy lingerie, a requirement in any good farce! Gerard’s tumble down two flights of stairs was expertly done, taking the audience by surprise with gasps heard all around.
Jeffrey McCrann and Taylor Pyles portray the ever-put-upon stage manager and set builder/ gopher who is often called upon to fix a door that sticks or won’t close, or play several of the roles when actors fail to appear as needed. Of course, this means there will be moments when two or even three actors appear onstage as the same character, sending the entire performance into a tailspin that no one seems to know how to end, even the director. But no one will mind as hysterical laughter engulfs the theater!
NOISES OFF By Michael Frayn is directed by William Wilday (who also designed the set and lighting) is produced by Anya Ivanova at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre, 2627 Pico Boulevard (Pico at 27th Street) in Santa Monica. Performances run through Oct. 19 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Reserved seats $18-20 online at www.morganwixson. org or by calling the theatre box office at (310) 828-7519.
Audience Talk-Backs will take place immediately following the performances on Sunday, Oct. 5 and Friday, Oct. 17.
The Culver City News welcomes Shari Barrett as our new weekly theater columnist. Along with reviews, Shari will be writing feature stories about local theater companies and Westside residents who are contributing to the arts in our community.