REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
In what show can you find a fire ax, a hot water bottle, a cactus plant, and a migrating plate of sardines? The answer is Noises Off, Michael Frayn’s madcap play-within-a-play that shows a traveling acting troupe coming apart at the seams while performing a mediocre, bawdy bedroom farce called “Nothing On.”
When I saw the Rubicon Theatre Company’s production of Noises Off, it was the third time since last summer that I’ve seen the show. The other two performances were done by a community theater company (Conejo Players) and a school production (Newbury Park High School). Seeing three very different versions of this show is quite enlightening, and especially in the order I saw them, because it gave me a chance to better absorb not only the different elements of the play but the way different levels of performers attack it.
Although Noises Off has three acts, they only perform one act of the fictional “Nothing On.” The first act is a final dress rehearsal. In Act II, the set is flipped around 180 degrees so we can see what goes on behind the scenes during the performance. The finale, Act III, reverts back to the front of the set during a disastrous performance. The first time you see Noises Off, Act I makes you wonder what all the fuss is about. When Act II comes on, you realize that all the business you experienced in Act I is merely a set-up for the shenanigans that go on behind the scenes. You are mildly amused by Act I, but in Act II, your eyes dart about, trying to take in all that is going on – and it is a multi-leveled experience, because while the action in “Nothing On” is taking place upstage where it is unseen in front of the set, in the foreground is playing a Keystone Kops silent vaudeville act of pantomime, pratfalls, and slapstick. The exhaustion of Act II gives way to Act III, which is kind of like going to the grocery store, selecting an orange in the produce section, and having an avalanche of oranges fall at your feet.
Director Kenneth Albers recognizes the different feel of each act – you can compare it to a high-powered automobile. In Act I, the engine is revving up, in Act II, it takes off in spectacular fashion, with smoke and flames coming from every pore of the vehicle. In Act III, the wheels come off and the car flies off the road into a ditch. That about sums up Noises Off. Fortunately, Albers selected the perfect cast to bring alive the crazy but believable characters in Frayn’s play. What’s interesting is that we get different impressions of each character as we learn more about them; each actor has to subtly change his or her characterization to reflect this virtual “filling-out” and all do their jobs splendidly.
First and foremost is the anchor of the show, “Nothing On” director Lloyd Dallas, played by William Langan. When we meet Lloyd, he is sitting in the back of the theater, patiently but resignedly directing the action. As time goes on and more and more things appear like they are never going to get straightened out, we see him slowly progress from professional and patient to more and more agitated. In Act II, it appears that he has given up on having a successful production and is more interested in his personal love life, as he juggles present and past amours within the troupe. Langan is superb in the role, and no matter what is going on, when he speaks, we recognize that only he can keep the juggernaut from going off the tracks. By Act II, it is too late.
Garry Lejeune, as played by Eric Curtis Johnson, appears to be fairly competent as an actor, as does blonde bombshell Brooke Ashton, played by Alyson Lindsay, until we realize that Garry can’t control his temper and Brooke’s acting skills are limited to posing like a Barbie doll and chirping out her lines as if they were coming from a TelePromTer. The other cast members include Robynn Rodriguez as Dotty Otley, an actress on her way down who is going through the motions, Andrew Borba as the insecure Frederick Fellowes, who is prone to nosebleeds, Catherine Lynn Davis as Belinda Blair, maybe the only competent professional of the lot, Joanna Strapp as Poppy Norton-Taylor, the emotional stage manager, Toby Tropper as the overworked assistant stage manager and emergency understudy Tim Allgood, and the very funny Rudolph Willrich as the liquor-swilling Seldson Mowbray.
Probably the most difficult of the three acts to pull off is Act II, in which madcap action is going on behind and in front of the set. The utter chaos of this act is something to behold. So much is going on that you wish for instant replays in every seat so we can watch and re-watch different bits of shtick in slow motion. It’s all beautifully choreographed and never lets up. In Act III, things go from worse to worser as “Nothing On” implodes. To get all the nuances (yes, there are nuances in this broad comedy) takes brilliant acting and direction, and Rubicon’s production hits all the marks.
The monstrous one-piece set takes up nearly every inch of space in the theater, both lengthwise and vertically, extending from wing to wing and only a few scant inches from the ceiling. The set for Noises Off was designed by Thomas S. Giamario of Giatheatrix, who has designed more than forty sets at Rubicon. According to Giamario, this particular set has more lumber and more carpentry than any other set in Rubicon’s history and is built to withstand the more than 290 door-slams that take place in the farce. The set is two stories high and has eleven doors with two additional entryways.
Noises Off is grand fun; but don’t be like the couple sitting next to me, who left after Act I, unable to understand what the fuss was all about. Think of it as lighting a fuse to an enormous fireworks display, but leaving the scene before it goes off.
Noises Off plays at the Rubicon Theatre Company through February 23. For dates and show times, see the VC On Stage Calendar.