Things are not right onstage or backstage in Nothing On, a new farce touring the byways and backwaters of England. The actors range from puzzled to clueless to utterly drunk. The play is a mess, with a director concerned mainly with getting the proper number of plates of sardines onstage at any one time before he darts off to London to helm a production of Richard III.
Hailed as one of the funniest plays ever written, Noises Off! comes with a lot of promise, which director Joel Sass and a tight, expert cast deliver on. Interestingly enough, the success of this madcap comedy comes by sometimes taking things slow. The energy is allowed to ramp up from act to act, reaching a tremendous crescendo as Nothing On goes completely off the rails.
Playwright Michael Frayn conceived of the show while watching a performance of his farce The Chinamen. He noted that there was as much madness backstage as onstage. In Noises Off! he ramps up that craziness to the breaking point, as the poorly conceived show is seen in its final rehearsal, a performance in the middle of the run, and then on its merciful closing night. We only ever see the opening act, so the stethoscope, straitjacket, and coffins mentioned in a fake program insert are left tantalizingly unseen, yet each time through is made fresh by our perspective and the characters' growing insanity.
The play becomes a kind of meta-farce, as Frayn understands that the actual plot of any farce is tertiary to the gags and characters. It doesn't matter why a solicitor has to wear a dress to his in-laws' anniversary party, it will just be funny to see such a straight-laced character in a pretty frock.
So the first act of Nothing On is packed with the usual farcical tools, from an absolute bevy of doors to a setup that includes two pairs of couples using a country home as an afternoon getaway for a bit of fun, a sardine-obsessed housekeeper, an over-the-hill burglar, and a sheikh who just happens to be the double of the man of the house.
How this act unfolds each time is the real comic brilliance of Noises Off! Nothing On itself is pretty dreadful, aiming low for its humor and managing to miss the mark. It isn't helped by a cast of has-beens and never-will-bes, or the somewhat distracted directing or a two-person stage crew just barely qualified for their jobs.
The bickering setup in the first act comes to fruition in the second, when the stage is flipped and we watch the act from backstage. During a brilliantly acted, nearly silent ballet, the company makes (well, mostly makes) their entrances and exits on stage, while battles are waged in the back. By the third act, the anger and despair have infected the stage as well, as the company runs through a performance so unhinged that it makes Springtime for Hitler look like Tennessee Williams.
It takes a special cast to bring all this together, and the company here is first-rate from top to bottom, led by Cheryl Willis as the "name" performer brought in to sell the show. Then there's Kirby Bennett as Belinda Blair, a terrible gossip who still wants to keep the show up and running, no matter how out of control it has become. Summer Hagen makes her Jungle debut as Brooke Ashton, playing the necessary bombshell whose approach to acting could be best called robotic.
It's not just the expert timing that makes this production of Noises Off! work so well. Director Sass gives the production a bit of breathing room. I mean that literally, as the laughs can come so quickly that the audience doesn't have a moment to catch their collective breath. This extra space allows for a bit of character development, which pays off in the second and third acts, as the energy moves closer and closer to absolute chaos. The Jungle dances on the edge without going over, and that makes for comedy gold.