THEATER REVIEW: ‘Noises Off’ is an insiders look at classic farce. On stage now at Walnut Street Theatre

Company of “Noises Off” at the Walnut Street Theatre.
Company of “Noises Off” at the Walnut Street Theatre. PHOTO BY MARK GARVIN
Ben Dibble and Alanna J. Smith in “Noises Off” now at the Walnut Street Theatre.
Ben Dibble and Alanna J. Smith in “Noises Off” now at the Walnut Street Theatre. PHOTO BY MARK GARVIN

IF YOU GO

“Noises Off” is on stage at The Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St. in Philadelphia through April 29. For tickets call 215-574-3550 or WalnutStreetTheatre.org

Farce has been around since the first pie in the face got a laugh, and it’s an essential part of the theatrical art, necessary for grounding in reality what’s seen on the stage.

What makes up a theatrical farce? It’s the unexpected, the improbable, the crude and grotesque. Consider the synonyms applied to farce — mockery, travesty, sham, pretense — and it’s clear just how carefully it must be applied to be effective. Too much, and you get Benny Hill or Jim Varney. Too little and you produce mean-spirited works such as Steve Tesich’s play Division Street.

In an interview a few years ago playwright Michael Frayn said “it seems to me that the theatre’s just a very clear example of what we all do all the time in life — we’re both performing and being the audience.” To demonstrate this, Frayne in 1982 used his observations of the real backstage farce going on at a rehearsal of his play “The Two of Us” and wrote “Noises Off,” a smart and funny parody of the form that’s one of the most performed plays in the world.

The Walnut Street Theatre (which produced the Philadelphia premiere of “Noises Off” in 1987) has brought back the play in a major production that reminds us that farce is greatly dependent on timing and quick broad brushes of character to establish the individual players. It’s in that second step that the Walnut’s production for all its gloss and lavish staging is somewhat dimmer than the luminously funny People’s Light production in 2013 directed by Pete Pryor.

Advertisement

“Noises Off” is a play within a play in three acts, each act ostensibly showing the first act of a typical British sex farce called Nothing On, being performed by a decidedly down-at-heel travelling theatrical company in three provincial British towns.

In the first act we see the bumpy road company do a technical rehearsal limping along to midnight before the opening performance. The cast is missing cues and is generally clueless. Act Two is a Wednesday matinée performance one month later, seen from backstage. Practice has not made perfect and the personal and professional clashes of the cast and director are becoming toxic. Act Three is a regular performance near the end of the ten-week run when the cracks in the production (and the cast) have become icy fissures deep enough to trap a dozen sherpas.

The Walnut Street production is well-equipped with talented local veteran actors including Ben Dibble (as Garry Lejeune the amorous house agent), Mary Martello (as Dotty Otley the Cockney cleaning lady), Greg Wood (as the beleaguered director Lloyd Dallas), Susan Riley Stevens (as Belinda Blair the well-mannered lady of the house), Daniel Fredrick and Lauren Sowa (as Poppy and Tim, the even more beleaguered house managers) and John Connolly and Alanna Smith (as the bibulous Selsdon Mowbray and the unflappable and improbable tax agent Brooke Ashton).

The reassuring presence of Wood as the sarcastic director Lloyd Dallas and Leonard Haas as the dim and self-deprecating Frederick Fellowes anchor the cast. Haas, making his long-overdue debut at Walnut Street was memorably funny in the Dallas role in the 2013 People’s Light production and is exceptionally bumbling and droll as Frederick now. But their presence still does not quite balance a note of uncertainty in character interaction as this cast embraces their roles.

Timing is everything in farce, as Lloyd Dallas himself tells the cast, and it must be approached in a workman-like fashion. “That’s what it’s all about: doors and sardines,” he tells his cast about the bits of stage business that are the foundations of theatre. “Getting on, getting off. Getting the sardines on, getting the sardines off.”

This Walnut Street cast in their opening week are working to get the slamming doors and moving plates of sardines down pat as they begin to inhabit the extraordinarily complex staging of “Noises Off.” Director Frank Anzalone understands this and clearly he’s been focused on that precise timing.

But particularly in the critical second backstage act, the cast has fewer lines and must use physicality and pratfalls to emphasize the personal conflicts that were sketched out in Act I and are now overshadowing the whole show-within-a-show. The pace and exposition of the first act gives only little time to establish the characters and their relationships offstage and in Act II the simmering love triangle between Dotty, Garry and Frederick must be more carefully delineated by body language. Their slapstick fights should have an element of real desperation while Lloyd’s frantic juggling romance with Poppy and Brooke should demonstrate how quickly farce can become potential tragedy.

Why do we like farce so much? When French farces began to fill British theaters in the late 19th century George Bernard Shaw (as a theater critic, not in his usual role as playwright) was appalled. He wrote:

“We find people who would not join in the laughter of a crowd of peasants at the village idiot, or tolerate the public flogging or pillorying of a criminal, booking seats to shout with laughter at a farcical comedy, which is, at bottom, the same thing – namely, the deliberate indulgence of that horrible, derisive joy in humiliation and suffering which is the beastliest element in human nature.”

Shaw’s observations echo quaintly in an era when humiliation is the fuel that powers large segments of our entertainment “industry” and as for social media, enough said.

If Shaw was suggesting that audiences can enjoy watching actors be fools if it implies this might make them less likely to mock the less fortunate in real life, that’s a charitable interpretation. But desperation and the crushing of hopes and dreams that’s implied in farce means that even the funniest slips, slaps and smooches need to be firmly connected to a character’s longings and fears.

Building a set for “Noises Off” requires the precision of a fine watch and the durability of a bank vault as the cast clambers though, into and over doors, stairs, windows and furniture. Indianapolis designer Robert Koharchik has created a revolving masterpiece of a country house set and a backstage, and seems to have spared no expense.