In 1970, Michael Frayn, the English playwright who would go on to write NOISES OFF, was standing backstage in the wings watching a performance of one of his other farces “The Two of Us.” Of that performance he said, "It was funnier from behind than in front, and I thought that one day I must write a farce from behind."
By the late 70s, Frayn had created the hilarious three-act NOISES OFF, whose title is taken from the theatrical stage direction indicating sounds coming from offstage. And for those never involved in putting on a theatrical play, I can tell you there is more than one show going on at each performance, especially backstage where the stage manager must not only wrangle the cast to be ready and enter at the right time but to also check props, costumes, lighting and sound cues, and basically make sure the performance is presented as the director intended it to be seen. And it’s a fact that given all the things that can go wrong backstage, it’s often a miracle the performance makes it to its curtain call at all.
But it is those instances of pandemonium both onstage and backstage that create laugher from start to finish in NOISES OFF, presented with a real flair for comic timing, entrances and exits, costume changes, tons of props, and an energetic cast who can run around like lunatics and still be able to remember all their lines! Such is the case at the Long Beach Playhouse under the brilliant direction of Gregory Cohen who first assembled his cast in early 2020, opened the show in March 2020, and then had the pandemic outbreak shut it down just two weeks into the run. And now they are back (with just one replacement cast member) through October 9 to carry on with the mayhem and mischief to delight audiences.
Called the funniest farce ever written, NOISES OFF presents a manic menagerie of itinerant British actors rehearsing a flop called “Nothing’s On.” Doors slamming, on and offstage intrigue, jilted lovers, misplaced and forgotten props, especially errant sardines, all figure in the plot of this hilarious and classically comic play within a play.
The cast features Andrea Stradling as dedicated but forgetful actress Dotty Otley, Eric Schiffer as the womanizing director Lloyd Dallas, handsome John Vann as younger leading man Garry Lejeune, Amara Phelps (who steals many a scene as the cell phone selfie-obsessed lingerie-wearing ingénue Brooke Ashton, Travis Wade as health-challenged actor Frederick Fellowes, Adanna Kenlow as Belinda Blair, perhaps the most “professional” actor of the troupe who attempts to hold things together, Lewis Leighton as washed-up by booze actor Selsdon Mowbray, Lyndsay Palmer as the put-upon and stressed-out Stage Manager Poppy Norton-Taylor who has a big secret herself, and PJ Cimacio as the Set Desginer/Tech Manager Tim Allgood who is called upon to take on several roles when actors are no-shows.
Each of these actors is to be commended for their boundless energy and great skill at physical humor, especially with all the dual-level entrances and exits at breakneck speed and props to remember. Timing is everything in this farce and this cast never misses a beat – even when we are supposed to think they have.
Act One takes place onstage at the final dress rehearsal of “Nothing’s On” with the cast hopelessly unready, although we are given a peak at how the show is supposed to go, especially their entrances and exits and how many seemingly meaningless plates of sardines have to be carried on and taken back off stage. The act ends with intermission during which Larry Mura’s remarkable double-sided set is completely turned around to allow Act Two to take place backstage a few weeks into the show’s run, which allows the audience to see behind the scenes. And trust me, with all of the actors’ antics going on, it’s every Stage Manager’s nightmare about losing control of the show!
At the end of Act Two, the cast changes the set pieces around in full view of the audience, generating a much-deserved round of applause when the set is back in place. Act Three then takes place at a performance onstage near the end of the fictional ten-week run when personal friction between the actors has continued to increase to the point that their frazzled nerves are getting the best of them.
So in essence, we watch as “Nothing On” is staged three times with each performance sinking lower into the depths of a staged nightmare generating laughs galore, even as the plot breaks down in the process. As the shenanigans mount and the play begins to unravel, it is the actors, each one of them incredibly physically agile, who make this farce come alive and generate hysterical laughter that fills the theater!
NOISES OFF continues at the Long Beach Playhouse, 5021 E. Anaheim Street in Long Beach 90804, through October 9 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm. Audience members must show proof of vaccination for admittance and wear a face at all times inside the building. Tickets run $14-$24, available by calling the box office at (562) 494-1014 or online at www.lbplayhouse.org where you can also select your seat assignments on any of the three sides of the thrust stage. And be prepared to try and follow all the action while laughing from start to finish!Photo credit: Michael Hardy Photography