Friday, July 17, 2009

Cygnet’s Noises Off: It Doesn’t Get Much Funnier


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

One of the most remarkable things about British playwright/novelist Michael Frayn — whose star-making 1982 play, Noises Off, is in production through August 23 by Cygnet at the Old Town Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street — is his ability to put flesh on some old and pretty clichéd bones. Noises Off deals with one of the most hackneyed theatrical premises — the “backstage” story, the act of putting on a play and the clash between the actors’ roles and their “real” identities — but it does so in a fresh, exciting manner that is at once oddly moving and funny as all hell. And Cygnet, blessed with a strong cast top-to-bottom and the fast, energetic direction of the theatre’s artistic director, Sean Murray, has done justice to Frayn’s crazy tribute to the bedroom farce and come up with a production that’s sure to entertain you.

Noises Off is in three acts, each one encompassing a performance of the first act of Nothing On, a farce by Robin Housemonger. This play-within-a-play deals with the attempt of house agent Roger Tramplemain (Jason Heil) to find a tenant for the country home of successful playwright Philip Brent (Craig Huisenga), who’s off in Spain with his wife Flavia (Sandy Campbell), where he’s established a legal residence in an attempt to evade Britain’s income tax. Roger has brought along a girlfriend, Vicki (Jessica John), hoping to use the house to help impress her and get in her pants, only his amorous (or at least sexual) intentions are stymied by the presence on the property of the housekeeper, Mrs. Clackett (Rosina Reynolds), who’s trying to settle down on the couch with a plate of sardines and watch the Royal-Something-or-Other horse race on TV. The Brents also come on the scene — they’ve sneaked back into Britain and are mortally afraid of being caught by an Inland Revenue agent — as does a burglar (Jonathan McMurtry) — and, in the classic manner of bedroom farce, a lot of doors open and close, a lot of intrigues are revealed, and Vicki has to spend much of the act in her bra and panties.

The dramatis personae of Noises Off are the people endeavoring to put Nothing On on — and getting caught up in a series of complications that, by Frayn’s design, are far more interesting than the ones in the script they’re performing. Dotty Otley (Rosina Reynolds), who plays Mrs. Clackett, has put some money into this production, hoping that a tour of the British provinces will enable her to make enough of a profit that she can retire. She’s having a difficult time remembering her actions — confronted in the first scene with a telephone receiver, a newspaper and a plate of sardines, she can’t remember which she’s supposed to take with her and which to leave behind when she exits — and she’s also having an affair with Garry Lejeune (Jason Heil), who plays Roger. Frederick Fellowes (Craig Huisenga), who plays Philip Brent, has just broken up with his wife when the play begins. Selsdon Mowbray (Jonathan McMurtry), who plays the burglar, is a chronic alcoholic; when they’re not fretting that he’ll miss a performance because he’s either in a bar or in an alley drying out, the rest of the company members are frantically looking backstage for all his Lost Weekend-style booze stashes.

Noises Off also features director Lloyd Dallas (Albert Dayan), who’s having an affair with assistant stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor (Kim Strassburger) — at one points she starts to blurt out that he’s got her pregnant. But that isn’t stopping him from cruising Brooke Ashton (Jessica John), who plays Vicki and is, if anything, even more vacuous and bird-brained than her dumb-blonde character (who’s revealed, early in Nothing On, to be an Inland Revenue agent hot on the Brents’ trail). Long-suffering company stage manager Tim Allgood (Jason Connors), who’s gone without sleep for two days putting up the elaborate set, is obliged to step into the part of any of the male cast members (as Poppy is for the females) in case they are late or disappear. He also gets drafted to buy flowers and other gifts for Lloyd’s new girlfriend without his old one catching on. Belinda Blair (Sandy Campbell), who plays Mrs. Brent, sails above the intrigues of both Nothing On and Noises Off with an air of imperious detachment that can’t help but drive the other characters crazy.

The plot of Noises Off deals with three stages of the production of Nothing On. The first act occurs during the technical rehearsal — or is it the dress rehearsal? The characters themselves aren’t sure — in which Lloyd is trying to get the final bits of blocking set and first appears only as a disembodied voice, thundering over the theatre’s P.A. system like the voice of God in a bad Biblical movie. After one particularly messy sequence in which the actors are frustrated not only by their own memory lapses but by technical malfunctions in Tim’s set — a door that’s supposed to open won’t open and one that’s supposed to close won’t close — Lloyd finally descends from his mountaintop and says, “And God said, ‘Hold it.’ And they held it. And God saw that it was … terrible.”

For the second act, Frayn specifies that the action take place backstage — which means that the whole elaborate house set has to revolve on a turntable (you should stay in the theatre for at least one of the two intermissions just to see Connors and Strassburger, in character as Tim and Poppy, personhandle the set) and much of the action has to take place in pantomime because the backstage actors can’t talk to each other without disrupting the performance on the other end. This is the act in which Dotty has a diva hissy-fit and locks herself in her dressing room, barely making it on in time after leaving Poppy anxious that she might have to take her place on stage. For act three, we see the front of the set again — we’re watching the final night of the Nothing On tour — and by now the actors are in such a state of disgust with the play, the tour and each other that the performance is a shambles, barely resembling what we saw being rehearsed in act one.

Though the Old Town Theatre’s lack of a front curtain means that he can’t stage the final gag the way Frayn called for — “The curtain detaches itself from its fixings and falls on top of them all, leaving a floundering mass of bodies on stage” — Murray’s direction is fully assured, rising to a script that seems at times to be a compendium of every way in which a play can go wrong. Murray seems to have taken his inspiration from classic movies: the first act is 1930’s screwball farce, the second is silent-screen comedy, and the third is a Marx Brothers-esque travesty that gives Heil a marvelous opportunity for a Buster Keaton-style pratfall, which he handles beautifully. Propelling the action with the frenzied energy that’s his directorial trademark, Murray steers his cast and helps them nail the laughs Frayn wanted.

The bill for the show boasts that it features “San Diego favorites Jonathan McMurtry and Rosina Reynolds,” but that’s a bit unfair to Jessica John, who should also be considered a local favorite and who stands out in a first-rate ensemble cast. She’s appeared all over town, playing heroines and villainesses (sometimes both in the same play), intellectuals and airheads, sad and happy characters. Reynolds, whose own efforts as a director (mostly at Diversionary Theatre) have tended towards intense romantic melodramas, proves a first-rate comedienne; her Cockney accent, especially when she pronounces “Spain” as “Spine,” is especially hilarious. (Kudos also to dialect coach Emmelyn Thayer.) McMurtry plays what’s essentially a one-joke part but plays it well. As John’s vis-à-vis, Jason Heil is striking in a bilious orange-and-brown outfit — where on earth did costume designer Corey Johnston find him such awful clothes? — and catches his Nothing On character’s self-importance as well as his Noises Off character’s hopeless obsession with the twice-his-age Dotty.

Sean Fanning’s set construction fully lives up to Frayn’s demand for “a superb example of the traditional English set-builder’s craft — a place where the discerning theatergoer will feel instantly at home.” Sound designer Matt Lescault-Wood has dug up a perfectly awful bit of introductory music — resembling a theme from a 1960’s British movie — and also does a good job feeding in recorded applause for the unseen Nothing On performance in act two. Lighting designer Eric Lotze keeps everyone visible and provides appropriate changes for a play that doesn’t challenge him to create atmosphere the way some of Cygnet’s other productions have. Corey Johnston’s costumes and Peter Herman’s wigs and hair help us see the Nothing On cast members as the perfectly awful, pretentious people they’re supposed to be playing, and Bonnie Durben’s task as properties designer range from having to provide five, count ’em, five plates of sardines to a phone with a detachable receiver and a lot of household bric-a-brac that predictably flies in the slapstick scenes.

Though Michael Frayn has become a deeper, richer, more intellectual playwright since Noises Off — Cygnet has already produced his marvelous 1988 play Copenhagen, a dramatization of the conflict between real-life physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in the 1940’s and Heisenberg’s role in Nazi Germany’s nuclear weapons program — this play remains a masterpiece of its kind. It’s a pity Cygnet didn’t (or couldn’t) include Frayn’s fictitious program for Nothing On in their real program for Noises Off — it contains humorous descriptions of the director and actors and an hilarious essay offering an intellectual defense of the bedroom-farce genre (“The removal of the trousers traditionally reveals a pair of striped underpants, in which we recognize both the stripes of the tiger, the feral beast that lurks in all of us beneath the civilized exterior suggested by the lost trousers, and perhaps also a premonitory representation of the stripes caused by the whipping which was formerly the traditional punishment for fornication”) — but their production itself is self-assured, sensitive, fast-moving and very, very funny.

Noises Off plays through Sunday, August 23 at the Old Town Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street. A Cygnet Theatre production. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets are $17-$46. Discounts are available for seniors, students, military and groups. Tickets can be purchased by visiting Cygnet's Web site at or calling the box office at (619) 337-1525. Tickets can also be purchased in person by visiting Cygnet's box office located at the Old Town Theatre.