One of their most successful productions, Contemporary Theatre Company (CTC) in South Kingstown brings back playwright Michael Frayn’s Noises Off as a revival from their 2009 season. A favorite of both actors and audiences, it is a play within a play in three acts, the first and third seen from in front of the stage and the second from backstage, all supposedly taking place during the production of a horrendously bad sophomoric farce involving lots of characters running in and out of doors amidst utterly unlikely coincidences. We see the first act repeated three times – from widely varying perspectives and with significantly deteriorating fidelity to its script. The fictional farce is called Nothing On, an allusion to a notoriously risqué Vaudeville joke popularized by Marilyn Monroe defending her decision to pose nude: “It’s not true I had nothing on. I had the radio on.“
The main challenge of Noises Off is that it is paradoxically very difficult to portray comically bad acting: One cannot simply get on stage and act badly because the result just is not funny. The real director (and CTC artistic director), Christopher J. Simpson, astutely notes in the program that the play is extremely straightforward: “There’s no creative mystery, no creative mystique.” I’m not quite sure I agree with that, because there is a lot of multi-layered subtlety, and much of the humor comes from the actors in the farce becoming involved in romantic entanglements that somewhat mirror those of their characters in the farce, despite their being ironically unaware of the parallels that are hilariously apparent to the audience.
Terry Shea is pitch-perfect as “Lloyd,” the mercenary John Cleese-like director trying to preserve his sanity doing a job that interferes with his Shakespearean ambitions, who if chance will have him director is not waiting around for chance to crown him. His actors are either emotionally desperate (“Dotty/Mrs. Clackett,” Michelle Mania), a bit dim (“Garry/Roger,” Will Tarantino), vapid (“Brooke/Vicki,” Rebecca Magnotta), emotionally traumatized (“Frederick/Phillip,” Jim Foley), overly maternal (“Belinda/Flavia,” Amelia Giles), or alcoholic (“Selsdon/burglar,” Terry Simpson). His crew is either naively devoted to him (“Poppy,” Maggie Papa) or just plain clueless (“Tim,” Peter Bucci).
We learn very quickly that Dotty is a has-been diva who is financing the production herself, presumably because she cannot get acting work otherwise, and is carrying on a romance with the much younger Garry. Belinda spills the beans about another romantic triangle among the cast, putting them at each other’s throats despite a “show must go on” ethos. Brooke spends most of the farce stripped down to her sexy black lace underwear because that’s her primary skill other than spacing out entirely and losing her contact lens. Frederick spends his time learning how not to be seen and gluing himself to objects such as envelopes. Selsdon is an aging actor fighting through senility and intoxication to play a burglar who delivers meandering soliloquies, pining for his days of stealing gold bullion from banks rather than television sets that he mistakes for microwave ovens. Poppy is hopelessly trying to please everyone, especially Lloyd. Tim is terrified that he will have to go on as understudy for Selsdon, who is so notoriously unreliable that everyone panics whenever he is out of sight.
Mania, making her Rhode Island debut after considerable experience in California, is very solid in a role that very much lives up to the character name “Dotty.” Terry Simpson, reprising his very first role with the company, is outstanding, bringing the right mock-Shakespearean gravitas to his role of the long-winded but absent-minded aging tragedian, becoming such stuff as hazily remembered hung-over dreams are made on. Tarantino is very effective playing a rather dim-witted actor whose favorite phrase when trying to express himself without a script is, “Well, you know what I mean.” Magnotta is wonderfully air-headed, turning the mental vacancy of her character into an art form.
Set design, credited to Chris Simpson and Tim Cashman, is notable given that the usual way of changing from audience view to backstage view is to rotate the entire set, but instead of that it is here built as three large sections that are separated and individually repositioned by teams of actors during the two intermissions. CTC traditionally tries to avoid dramatic blackouts except to end acts, and because of this all aspects of redress are performed in full view, adding to the meta-theatrical layering of the show.
The end result is an enjoyable comic play that despite all of the craftsmanship present in its script and production remains as light as a beach read. There is a strong and consistent feeling of inexorable entropy as the provincial touring company degenerates into slapstick madness, with everything coming totally unglued right up until the infamous last line. Noises Off is a fun show, easy to see why it has been among CTC’s most popular. The reviewed performance was a near sell-out.
Noises Off at Contemporary Theatre Company, 327 Main Street, Wakefield. contemporarytheatercompany.com/noises-off, fully handicap accessible.
Thu (7/24, 8/7), Fri (7/18, 7/25, 8/1, 8/8), Sat (7/19, 7/26, 8/2, 8/9), Sun (7/27, 8/3), all 7pm. About 2h20m including two intermissions. Includes mature content, including subject matter not appropriate for anyone under 14. Tickets: contemporarytheatercompany.com/box-office/ or 401-218-0282.