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STAGE REVIEW : LAUGHTER IS LOUDEST PART OF ‘NOISES OFF’

Times Theater Critic

“Noises Off” is about as funny as a farce can afford to get. After some shows, you need a drink. After this one you need a cup of cocoa, to settle down.

It is the backstage farce that should end this genre once and for all. What’s left to do? Playwright Michael Frayn has thought of everything that can possibly go wrong when people are putting on a play. And he has taste. The set doesn’t fall down in the third act: only the audience.

Technically, “Noises Off” (at the Ahmanson) doesn’t have three acts. It has one act, played three times. And they never do get it right.

The situation: A drop-your-pants farce called “Nothing On” is touring the English provinces--prior to London, as they say. We witness the dress rehearsal, a midweek matinee and an end-of-tour performance.

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The rehearsal is a disaster. The matinee (which we see from behind the scenes) is confusion twice confounded. By the time of the last performance, the play has gone mad and has started to attack the actors.

They are not what you would call “distinguished” actors. We read their sad little bio’s in a replica of the “Nothing On” program, next to an ad for the local sauna. The old man of the company (Douglas Seale) “first trod the boards with the Ben Greet Players.” The soubrette (Deborah Rush) has taken off her clothes in a lager commercial. The juvenile (Victor Garber) has won several Most Promising awards, year not stated.

We get the picture. Still, the star of “Nothing On” does seem to have some cachet. She is Dotty Otley, everybody’s favorite charlady on the telly. What a treat to see her in a stage play! And she plays a maid here too.

But poor Dotty (the wonderful Dorothy Loudon) has been away from the boards too long. She can’t remember her props, can’t place her lines and by that last performance seems to have gone permanently ‘round the bend--as opposed to her fellow players, who will probably get over “Nothing On” in time, although they will never, never forget it.

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Frayn’s chronicle of theatrical calamity is desperately funny all the way through, with a slight dip in the second act, when the counterpoint of on stage and backstage madness gets a little ahead of the viewer (but not the actors: Loudon and company are bang-on). The cream of the jest is that last show in the Municipal Theatre, Stokton-on-Tees, which is every nightmare that every theater person has ever had, to the ninth power.

It’s not merely that the door handles fall off and that the telephone keeps ringing after you answer it. It’s the lightning way that one error breeds another, as in a chain reactor. Suddenly the actors find themselves running in and out of doors saying words that don’t make any sense at all, the logic of the story totally gone.

Panic puts their reaction mildly. This is dread. If they could, they’d run backstage and jump into a costume trunk. But they are doomed to keep chasing around, improvising nonsense, until either (1) the audience kills them, which in their paranoiac frame of mind seems quite possible, or (2) the curtain comes down. And for heaven’s sake, why doesn’t it??? Is this a plot of my mother’s to get me out of the theater???

“Noises Off” is pure anarchy--but fanatically well-ordered. Slow the story down, even that dense second scene, and it would hang together. Credit playwright Frayn for that. (He’s even made the show within the show amusing, on its own silly terms. Not a man who cuts corners.)

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But in the playing things can’t slow down. Nor can there be bobbles, or we won’t know where we are. Credit director Michael Blakemore and an amazing bunch of actors--this is the original Broadway company--for some awesome coordination up there.

One doesn’t envy Loudon and company for what they have to go through in this show. All those collisions and contusions, and three matinees a week on top of it! Yet they also take the time to make their characters a little bit real.

We don’t see the “Nothing On” company as an especially likable crew, beneath the opening-night treacle (and you can bet that wears off as the tour goes on). But this cast does give them a certain innocence, for all their vanity, rumormongering and multiple love affairs.

Loudon, for instance, who is good at portraying brash ladies, gives poor Dotty no more brass than an aging TV star on her own requires. Indeed, there’s something almost touching about her, as she keeps forgetting the business with the plate of sardines.

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Similarly, Paxton Whitehead is all good will as he keeps interrupting rehearsals to clear up this or that plot point. “You know how stupid I am” actually does have a grain of humility to it. And Brian Murray as the director keeps his viciousness somewhat under wraps, in the interest of professionalism. (Besides, you’ve got to love a British director dumb enough to call himself Lloyd Dallas.)

Michael Annals’ setting makes somewhat the same plea--it’s tacky, but it would be artistic if it knew how. “Noises Off” is the tribute of some superior theater folk to the troops in the trenches. And a demonically effective laugh machine.

‘NOISES OFF’ Michael Frayn’s comedy, at the Ahmanson Theatre. Presented by James Nederlander, Robert Fryer, Jerome Minskoff, the Kennedy Center and Michael Codron, in association with Jonathan Farkas and MTM Enterprises Inc. and Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson. Director Michael Blakemore. Setting and costumes Michael Annals. Lighting Martin Aronstein. Casting Howard Feuer, Jeremy Ritzer. Production supervisor Susie Cordon. Production stage manager Arlene Grayson. With Dorothy Loudon, Brian Murray, Victor Garber, Deborah Rush, Amy Wright, Paxton Whitehead, Linda Thorson, Christian Clemenson, Douglas Seale. Plays Tuesday-Saturday at 8:30 p.m., with matinees Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Closes March 30. 135 N. Grand Ave., 972-7654, tickets $7--$27.


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