First with What the Butler Saw at N.C. Stage, and now Noises Off down the street at Asheville Community Theatre, one begins to wonder if late 20th Century British farces are coming back into vogue. Perhaps they have something profound and pertinent to say to us amidst the confusions of post-9/11 America. Perhaps; but heck if I can figure out what it is.
Fortunately, a well-written and well-performed British farce can be pretty entertaining stuff. Audiences are typically treated to the spectacle of girls in their underwear scampering around, middle-aged men scampering after them with their trousers either down around their ankles or nowhere at all, somebody getting repeatedly knocked in the head, and enough frantic entrances and exits to pound a plywood set to smithereens.
Michael Frayn’s Noises Off is no exception, though he takes it one step further by giving us a farce-within-a-farce. Act 1 is the final dress rehearsal for the (fictional) British farce Nothing On, by one “Robin Housemonger.” The cast, under the frazzled direction of “Lloyd Dallas” (played with furious despair by Clete Fugate), is as befuddled as they are talentless. Act 2 takes us backstage during a performance of Nothing On — for which the entire set (ingeniously designed by ACT veteran Jack Lindsay) has to be rotated 180° on the stage — when the hapless cast is at each other’s throats, or else slaking their own from a bottle of scotch, between entrances. Act 3 then brings the set around front again as we witness the same bit of Nothing On, only this time we are ourselves the “audience” at what is supposed to be the worst performance of all time.
The play is smart, and this production is good fun. But you see the challenge: how does one play a character well who is himself playing a character but doing it badly? Or what’s the difference between terrible acting and acting terrible? It’s a bit like writing a story about boredom: should the story itself be boring? Certainly not. In fact, what’s required here is pretty sophisticated, and I don’t envy director Josh Batenhorst the challenges he faced with Noises Off. The image comes to mind of playing chess while juggling champagne glasses on a Tilt-A-Whirl. By the end, there are a few broken glasses, and I’m not sure what happened to a couple of bishops, but it’s been a ride.
The Sunday matinee audience when I saw the show loved it, and they rewarded the cast with a standing ovation. If I myself wasn’t entirely swept up in the enthusiasm, it was largely because the play never succeeded in making me give much of a hoot about the characters, these hapless actors in the play-within-the-play. Unfortunately, some important plot points seem to have been lost in the shuffle of shenanigans, and when things boil over in Act 2, it’s hard to tell what all the fuss is about. The consequence is a more or less constant hubbub — some of which is funny in the way a guy slipping on a banana peel is funny — but without a clear sense of what’s at stake.
But I’ll be the first to admit that I may be asking too much — or the wrong thing — of Noises Off. A comparison with Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw is actually instructive here. While Frayn, with his play-within-the-play, has certainly trumped Orton for crafty sophistication, he’s made no attempt at what gave the earlier play (and what gives many farces) a lasting bite: satire. Orton’s fun is wicked fun. Frayn’s is just fun.
There can be no doubt of the show’s charms as entertainment — chief among which, for me, are the moments of physical comedy. And among the cast, David Ostergaard stands out as the earnest and hilariously inarticulate actor “Garry LeJeune.” While there are others in the cast who hit the British dialect more consistently than Ostergaard, none can match him for sheer exuberance and comic timing. He and Cary Nichols, who also impresses as “Dotty Otley,” seem most at home with this sort of material, though no one is seriously miscast. During the pandemonium of Act 2, they all work together with remarkable success.
In short, the show makes no pretense at being anything other than “light fare.” But light doesn’t mean easy, and Batenhorst and his team deserve praise for pulling it off as well as they do.
Noises Off, by Michael Frayn. Presented by Asheville Community Theatre. Directed by Josh Batenhorst. Set Design by Jack Lindsey. Lighting Design by Jay Harry. Costume Design by Deborah Austin. Prop Design by Ann Silkie. Stage Manager: Lindsey Cashion. Featuring: Jeff Catanese, Sara Fields, Clete Fugate, Kevin Kibby, Ryan Madden, Carin Metzger, Cary Nichols, David Ostergaard, Laura Roop. Production runs through July 18, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets: $22/$19/$12. ACT is located on E. Walnut Street in downtown Asheville, NC. For tickets: 828-254-1320 or visit www.ashevilletheatre.org.