Story: It’s final rehearsal night for a sex comedy titled Nothing On, which (fictional) playwright Robin Housemonger has set in a 16th century English mill that’s available for rent. The touring company that’s about to present this show at the Grand Theatre in Weston-super-Mare, England is still missing cues, dropping lines and questioning motivation in their characters, all of which exasperates Lloyd, the director.
Complicating matters is Lloyd’s dalliance with a vapid ingénue named Brooke, despite the presence of his most previous fling, assistant stage manager Poppy. Reliable actress Belinda reassures everyone that everything is fine, even as the cast tries to keep veteran actor Selsdon from stashing away bottles of liquor about the backstage area. Quick-tempered Garry is dating Dotty, who riles him by feigning affection for Frederick, who’s prone to nose bleeds when confronted with violence. Stage manager Tim is over-worked and constantly running errands for Lloyd while memorizing lines as understudy for both Selsdon and Freddy.
On stage, Dotty is the laid-back housekeeper at the mill, which is owned by tax-evaders Phillip (Freddy) and Flavia (Belinda) Brent. They’ve snuck back from Spain to their home, not knowing that real estate agent Roger (Garry) is there for a rendezvous with amorous Vickie (Brooke). An elderly burglar (Selsdon) also shows up in search of valuables.
The plot of Nothing On is not overly complicated, but its story seems increasingly beyond the grasp of the ill-prepared cast as opening night approaches.
Highlights: Playwright Michael Frayn got the idea for this three-act farce while standing back stage in 1970 watching a performance of another of his plays. His observations led him to believe that the off-stage antics of the cast were funnier than the on-stage fiction they were presenting. In 1982 Frayn’s inspired comedy, Noises Off (a theatrical stage direction referring to sounds meant to originate off stage), opened in London, where it ran for five years. Termed by New York Times’ critic Frank Rich as “the funniest play written in my lifetime,” it’s been produced by countless companies ever since.
Other Info: Noises Off is an expertly crafted farce that can keep an audience in stitches when performed crisply. Ozark Actors Theatre, now celebrating its 25th anniversary of summer performances about 100 miles southwest of St. Louis, takes its initial stab at it under the tutelage of producing artistic director Jason Cannon with generally pleasing results.
The three-act, play-within-a-play comedy is complex enough for the audience to follow, much less for a cast to handle its twin sets of characters with aplomb. The first act is set on stage for Nothing On, then switches back stage for Act II a month later in another town. Act III occurs once again on the stage of Nothing On two months later in a third city as the tour mercifully concludes its run.
Cannon’s cast, after a slow start out of the gates, catches fire in the uproariously funny second act. The pretenses on stage are dropped behind the performance area as various tour members go through a series of machinations that requires expert choreography and timing for the comic chaos to reach full potential.
It all looks substantially difficult from an audience perspective, but the players generally are up to the challenge. It’s impressive watching them engage in quick-movement slapstick as they careen through a series of doors fortuitously assembled within Kevin Shaw’s two-tiered, upper-crust abode of a set in the ‘front’ and some precipitous stairs in the back area.
The rapid-fire antics in the increasingly anarchic second and third acts are preciously conveyed by the accomplished cast. Lavonne Byers demonstrates her deft comic touch as the slovenly Dotty, Sarah Cannon maintains her crisp British accent throughout as the busybody Belinda and Blane Pressler shows sharp comic sense as the overwhelmed Frederick.
Bess Moynihan and Michael Detmer are consistently amusing as the emotional Poppy and stressed-to-the-max Tim, while Gordon Fox, after an uncertain beginning, delights as the hard-of-hearing, booze-swilling Selsdon.
Bryan Dobson entertains as exasperated and womanizing director Lloyd and Kristin McGuire is engaging as the skimpily-attired Brooke, who has a penchant for losing her contact lenses at most inappropriate times. Gregory Cuellar rounds out the accomplished cast as the overly jealous Garry, although his character’s knack for stuttering off-stage seems ignored in this performance.
Dapper costumes designed by Jane Sullivan, bright lighting by Michael Sullivan and Cris Abbott’s funny sound design all complement the impressive activity on stage. With a bit of polish here and there, this enjoyable Noises Off might be even better by the second weekend of its run.
Play: Noises Off
Group: Ozark Actors Theatre
Venue: Cedar Street Playhouse, 701 North Cedar, Rolla
Dates: July 19, 20, 21, 22
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Ozark Actors Theatre