When it comes to farces, Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off” is one of the great ones. The 1982 comedy has made it to Broadway three times, and American audiences all over the country have embraced it in countless regional productions.
Actors’ Playhouse is having a go at “Noises Off” as the second show of its 30th anniversary season. The play fits like a period glove on the main stage at the Miracle Theatre, and farce is one of the strongest theatrical styles in artistic director David Arisco’s wheelhouse.
The first act is heavy on exposition and thus merely sporadically funny as the characters get introduced and relationships are outlined. But the second and third acts, here combined into one long second act, are comedy gold.
“Noises Off” is a steeped-in-theater show that will land most strongly with theater-savvy audience members. Frayn serves up a touring company presenting a sex farce titled “Nothing On,” and each act contains a version of the first scene from the fictional farce. “Version” is correct: When it comes to “Nothing On,” nothing ever seems to go right.
Though the character names of the performers and offstage artists in this fictional theater company remain solidly British, the Actors’ Playhouse version of “Noises Off” features an American company making tour stops in Des Moines, Miami Beach and Cleveland. In rehearsal and offstage, everyone except snooty British director Lloyd Dallas (Gary Marachek) speaks with an American accent. In performance, it’s full-on “Bob’s your uncle” and the like.
In “Noises Off,” Dotty Otley (Annette Miller) is a seasoned television star playing a hapless Cockney maid in “Nothing On.” Her name and fame will theoretically help sell tickets, and she’s so confident of her box office allure that she’s invested in the production. She also has a penchant for getting involved with younger men, and her current squeeze Garry Lejeune (Daniel Capote) is the leading man in “Nothing On.”
The other actors are Brooke Ashton (Betsy Graver), a curvy beauty who is forever losing her contact lens and who has no improvisational skills whatsoever; Belinda Blair (Lindsey Corey), skilled at her craft and at gossip; Frederick Fellowes (Terry Hardcastle), a sensitive and injury-prone fellow; and Selsdon Mowbray (Peter Haig), a veteran actor whose fondness for booze has done nothing to help his career.
Behind the scenes, assistant stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor (Jeni Hacker) is juggling a temperamental cast and an affair with the director, and stage manager Tim Allgood (Mark Della Ventura), whose duties run the gamut from fixing problems with the set to understudying the unreliable Selsdon to running romantic errands for the director, who has managed to get himself involved with Poppy and Brooke.
“Noises Off” is an exercise in barely controlled, finely choreographed mayhem.
The first act is an endless dress/technical rehearsal, an experience creeping into the wee hours in part because Dotty seems unable to remember where her props should be at any given time. In the second act, the set swings around and the audience watches the backstage antics during “Nothing On,” as relationships have disintegrated and rivalries have heated up. The final act, set near the end of the “Nothing On” tour, presents a company and a production in chaos.
Arisco, the real orchestrator of the chaos in the Actors’ Playhouse production, has assembled a cast with strong comedic chops, with the majority being winners of the Carbonell Award, South Florida theater’s top honor.
Marachek, an Arisco favorite and four-time Carbonell winner, gets to show off the range of his talent as Lloyd as he cajoles, reassures, explodes and, at one point, hilariously mimes senior citizens rushing to their seats when Poppy and Tim have made a series of conflicting pre-show calls.
Miller imbues Dotty with a dottiness appropriate to the character’s name. Capote’s Garry is a study in barely contained rage, while Hardcastle’s earnest Frederick is forever seeking his character’s motivations, suffering nosebleeds and getting injured. Haig is an energetic wonder as an older actor who doesn’t hear very well but has 20-20 vision when it comes to spotting bottles of alcohol.
Corey and Graver are deft comediennes who look great in Ellis Tillman’s form-fitting costumes (and, in Graver’s case, the black sex-farce undergarments that serve as Brooke’s attire for most of “Nothing On”). Hacker’s Poppy comes off as a reliable, beleaguered woman with a heavy secret, and Della Ventura takes Tim from utter exhaustion in the first act to a sunny demeanor later as he tries to keep this particular Titanic from sinking.
Tim Bennett’s two-story set, an English country home that was once a mill, contains seven doors for slamming, another curtained exit for accessing the attic and a wide downstairs window through which Selsdon-as-burglar enters in “Nothing On.” When it rotates in the second act, the audience sees what that fancy set looks like from the back, with labeled doors, escape stairs and the like. Lighting designer Eric Nelson clearly delineates the bright world of “Nothing On” in performance and the murkier backstage environment, and sound designer Shaun Mitchell expertly juggles all the cues in the faux show and the real one.
“Noises Off” is not a short show, and for some, it may be the theatrical equivalent of an inside-baseball experience. But Arisco, his cast and creative collaborators are reliable when it comes to farce, and those who have the patience to get through the first act setup will be rewarded with a sometimes-hilarious payoff after intermission.
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If you go
▪ What: “Noises Off” by Michael Frayn.
▪ Where: Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables.
▪ When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through Feb 4.
▪ Cost: $64 Friday-Saturday, $57 other performances (10 percent senior discount Wednesday-Thursday, $15 student rush tickets 15 minutes before curtain, based on availability).
▪ Information: 305-444-9293 or www.actorsplayhouse.org.