REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
Toward the beginning of the anarchic second act in the play “Noises Off,” Tim, the overworked assistant stage manager says, “This is getting farcical.” This is the understatement of the century, in a show that is relentless in its craziness, and a cast with more nuts than a Payday bar. “Noises Off,” a love sonnet to life in the theater that delivers with a satirical machete, concludes a four-week run at the Conejo Players Theatre this Saturday, but not before inciting waves of uncontrollable laughter in and between the theater’s aisles.
The show concerns a mediocre regional touring theatrical troupe who are putting on a shamelessly bawdy drawing room comedy called “Nothing On.” In Act I, we see the bare bones of the play’s first act (we never see anything more than this), which only serves to set up the second and even a third act, as the insanity becomes increasingly certifiable.
Never mind about the story in the show-within-a-show. It’s not important. All you need to do is be familiar with the lines and entrances in the first act because they form a framework for the lunacy in the two succeeding acts. In Act I, the engine is just revving up. In Act II, it rockets forth at a chaotically high speed, and in Act III, it loses control and runs completely off the road.
Even though “Noises Off” has no songs, Act I is almost like a musical with its cacophonous symphony of slamming doors. It’s as if the Marx Brothers were put in charge of the old “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” joke wall. Dyspeptic director Lloyd Dallas is attempting to coerce his cast through a final tech rehearsal of “Nothing On” to no avail. Lines are missed, props misplaced, and there are pratfalls aplenty. Keith Moreton plays Lloyd like a raging, cross-eyed Sid Caesar, cajoling, screaming, and pleading with his overwrought actors to follow the script.
The “cast” of nine is one of the hardest working ever seen on this stage. Eric Mello plays the speech-affected Garry, who can’t finish a sentence as himself, much less remember his character’s lines. (His sentences all trail off with “y’know”) In Act III, his headlong tumble down two flights of stairs received its own ovation. Joanna Bert plays Brooke Ashton, a novice actress of questionable background who is more preoccupied with examining her nails and primping her bust line than she is with acting. She spends most of the play prancing around in her undies. Bert is not only sexy in a PG-13 rated way, she possesses exquisite comedic timing. Suzanne Tobin is Dotty, and there has never been a better name for a character than hers. Dotty is Carol Burnett’s charwoman at the brink of dementia. Her muddled perception of her role in the faux play falls completely apart by Act III, when she just decides to make stuff up. Tobin is delightfully daffy in this part. David Colville plays Freddy, a handwringer who is prone to nosebleeds. Colville summons up character actor Jon Lovitz in his portrayal, who he physically resembles. Jim Seerden is the tippling Selsdon, an over-the-hill actor who beams at the sight of a nomadic whiskey bottle that seems to be a character of its own since it is constantly appearing within proximity of his thirsty hands. Kimberly Demmary is also outstanding as Belinda, the sanest and most professional (which is not saying much) of the troupe members. She doesn’t stand a chance.
The backstage personnel is as looney as the cast. Courtney Potter adds extra dimension to her role as the oversensitive stage manager Poppy. Drew Davenport is assistant stage manager Tim, whose best moments come in Act III, when he appears in front of the traveling curtain in a vain attempt to maintain calm in the face of the anarchy going on back stage.
Act I is silly enough, as we become acquainted with the characters and situation of the first act of “Nothing On.” But in Act II, an extra layer is added to the silliness, as the set does a complete flip-flop and we are able to watch what goes on back stage while the characters zip in and out of the slamming doors. Performed mostly in pantomime, the mayhem is so well choreographed that we want to see it in slow motion to make sure we are catching everything. Garry skurries, Brooke flounces, Freddy sulks, Lloyd rages, and it is a silent slapstick ballet that is so well-timed and executed, it deserves its own standing ovation.
The laughs in this show do not come from any clever wordplay or gags, but from the mechanical precision of the ingenious blocking. Dick Johnson’s masterful and attractive set design perfectly fits the wanton mania and is sturdy enough to withstand the slamming of doors and crashes into walls.
In an interview after a matinee performance, director Brian Robert Harris said that he is not used to directing comedies, but eagerly took on the challenge. “I generally tend to be a very organic director,” he said. “I usually tell my actors, ‘I want you to do what feels right for you and I’m not going to set the blocking in stone.’ Well, you can’t do that in this show! In this show, the blocking IS set in stone and that was a challenge for me. I watched the movie to get the blocking down so that it was like muscle memory in my mind. I’m all about big risks as a director. In this show, I wanted my actors to take huge ridiculous risks that make them look like idiots, and I wanted to see uniqueness. We had 94 people audition and I got the exact nine people that I needed.” When I asked Harris if sometimes he felt like he was in a show-within-the-show-within-the-show, he said, “I always felt a little like Lloyd the director, because I think every director does a little bit. But my actors are nothing like the actors in ‘Nothing On.’ They were so focused and committed and I think they were terrific.”
If you haven’t seen “Noises Off,” you can’t do better than with this production. Go see it. Even if you don’t like sardines.
“Noises Off” concludes its run this weekend at the Conejo Players Theatre. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar of Events. Stay tuned for an “en masse” interview with the cast later this week!