- OnStage Connecticut Critic
The last and only other time I sat in the audience of The Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center (The Kate) and watched a play I was a nervous wreck. It was during the dress rehearsal of a musical I was assistant directing and I spent the entire show sitting in the back row of the house, furiously scribbling notes and anxiously whispering via headset to the stage manager and ASMs. Despite my nerves, we were in fine shape for opening but of course there were kinks to be ironed out. This actor wore the wrong hat, that light cue was wrong, this stagehand had the bad habit of wandering on stage.
Given that, it was perfect timing that my return trip to the back row of The Kate was to see “Noises Off” a hilarious backstage farce about all the things that can (and do) go wrong during the process of putting up a play. Written in 1982 by Michael Frayn, “Noises Off” is a community theater staple (and oft-revived professionally too, including a Broadway bow this year) that I have somehow always missed. But my introduction to the play, as well as to the work of the Saybrook Stage Company, was utterly enjoyable, more than a little relatable and entirely exhausting in all the best of ways.
The first act of “Noises Off” follows an English theater troupe during their final rehearsal of “Nothing On,” a ham-fisted sex farce where doors slam, identities are mistaken and dumb double entendres run wild. It’s a pretty disastrous dress and we only get to see act one. Addled Dotty (Ruth Lanzer) can’t seem to remember where to place her many props, pretentious Frederic (Mark Gilchrist) keeps getting a bloody nose and no can seem to find the show’s lush of an elder statesman (Allan Church). That’s not even mentioning dim Garry (John Demetre) and even dimmer Brooke (Hanna Pearsall). Only Belinda (Terri Corigliano) seems to do anything right in the eyes of their frustrated director (Jason Naylor) who spends much of the rehearsal yelling at the actors and stage managers (Mary Corgliano and Alec Bandzes) through the God mic or face-to-face.
One genius invention of Frayn’s script is that the first act isn’t just a funny look into a director’s worst nightmare that will surely strike a few familiar chords with anyone who’s done theater before, but it’s a blueprint that the rest of the show will follow. Once we know what “Nothing On” is supposed to look like, Frayn then presents it to us twice more. Once from backstage, where interpersonal drama and misunderstandings turn a usual matinee into total chaos and then, in the third act, from the audience’s viewpoint where we watch a run that unravels in the most spectacular of ways. While Frayn’s humor is broad and full of vaudevillian slapstick, he is playing an incredibly smart game of comedic chess. Jokes keep building on each other and there are set-ups that are cleverly placed long before any payoff.
While Frayn’s material is very strong, the technical demands on the cast and director is high with such a fast paced, physical show. Under the deft yet unobtrusive direction of Martin Scott Marchitto, the tremendous cast yells, falls and sweats their way through two-and-a-half-hours of precisely choreographed, non-stop movement. The funniest moments, though, often were less about pratfalls and more how the cast interpreted the mannerisms and quirks of their duel roles. Notice how Frederic’s accent slipped a few social classes when he stepped out of character to ask the director another inane question about his performance or how Dotty’s spotty memory left her line readings stilted. While the cast was uniformly strong, it was Hanna Pearsall’s Brooke that made me laugh the most. The role of an airheaded, untalented sexpot who slept her way past auditions isn’t a new one, but Pearsall breathed new life into the stock character. Long-legged and looking more than a little like Colleen Ballinger (the YouTube comedian know for playing another inept wannabe starlet), Pearsall’s Brooke is a detailed and hilarious comic creation, from her set-in-stone arm gestures for each line or her complete lack of ability to improvise.
All these elements – the wonderful mannerisms of the cast, the bad play-within-a-play, Marchitto’s keen eye for staging – best manifest itself in the second act which, after some expository dialogue, quickly dissolves into an extended, nearly silent physical comedy ballet. It’s an incredibly impressive feat of stagecraft with all the precise timing and wit of a living silent movie. Despite the high level of technical difficulty, Marchitto and his cast do a seamless job, creating a highly memorable set piece that left the audience breathless, both from laughing and from secondhand physical exhaustion.
Given the frenetic and wildly enjoyable second act, the third often felt bloated and, by the end of the night, the antics of the eccentric cast began to wear thin. But just when it seemed to be sagging, there was one more bit or joke to lift it right back up again. I’m sure the general public who saw “Noises Off” at The Kate found it a highly amusing and delightfully fast-paced play. But for those who have done theater before, it was something more – a funhouse mirror look into the worst case scenarios feared by directors and cast members alike, featuring exaggerated versions of characters and conversations you’ve probably had in your own rehearsal process. On stage, it’s incredibly fun to watch. In real life…not so much.
This production has closed. For more info about the Saybrook Stage Company, visit www.saybrookstage.org