- The Washington Times - Friday, December 22, 2006

“Don’t you love farce?” asks the character Desiree in the song “Send in the Clowns” from the Sondheim musical “A Little Night Music.”

Heck, no.

A glimpse of theater marquees advertising “Pardon My Bloomers” or “Is That a Gun in Your Pocket or Is It Shrove Tuesday?” sends me screaming to the nearest bar, where I down vodka martinis in quantities so large the bartender has to stir them with his leg.

Even those who consider farce Ambien in the footlights might find themselves helpless with laughter during Arena Stage’s production of “Noises Off,” British playwright Michael Frayn’s rowdy 1982 backstage comedy in which everything falls apart on both sides of the curtain.

For the show, Arena ransacked Old Blighty for director Jonathan Munby (who directed some of the most arresting parts of “The Canterbury Tales,” performed in spring at the Kennedy Center) and actor James Gale, in a majestically piqued performance as director Lloyd Dallas.

The British infusion adds fizz to the production, which also features some of the finest comedic talent on this side of the pond, including Robert J. Prosky, Helen Carey and Susan Lynskey. “Noises Off” centers on a third-rate British theater company’s efforts to put on a third-rate sex farce called “Nothing On,” the plot of which entails secretaries in their scanties, slamming doors, canned fish and mysteriously vanishing and reappearing tote bags.

Mr. Munby wisely retains the play’s early 1980s setting, and the sight of big-shouldered, big-belted dresses, leggings and oversized jewelry serves as a joyful visual pun to the days of “Dynasty” and “Flashdance.” The canned, synthesized music also adds more cheese to a cheesy era.

“Nothing On” is nothing special, but you would think the company were wrestling with “Peer Gynt” the way the actors blow lines, flub entrances and ask the director for motivation for such actions as carrying a box into another room. The show’s star, Dotty Otley (a divinely devilish Miss Carey), playing an adage-mangling housekeeper, cannot remember her lines — “It’s all those words,” she confides — or the plates of sardines so central to the plot.

Debonair co-star Garry Lejune (Stephen Schnetzer, who gets endless comic mileage out of the words “you know” and “sardines”) huffs with inarticulate bluster when not uttering his lines, while actor Frederick Fellowes (Stephen F. Schmidt) wallows in mewling hypersensitivity. Belinda Blair (Lynnda Ferguson) is the cloyingly supportive troupe busybody, and Brooke Ashton (Amelia McClain) is the sexy ingenue whose brain appears blissfully free of those pesky thoughts.

Rounding out the company is veteran thespian and booze hound Selsdon Mowbray (Mr. Prosky), harried stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor (Miss Lynskey) and gofer/understudy Tim Allgood (Jay Russell).

After a hilariously dismal dress rehearsal in Act One, the cast and crew deal with things far worse than missed cues and hiding the whiskey from Selsdon in the second half, where the two-story Tudor set swivels around to reveal the backstage area. Soured affairs, tiffs, love triangles and a matter involving ever-diminishing bouquets of flowers make what’s happening in the wings far more riotous than the tired farce performed for the matinee audience.

Anarchy rules as the actors sabotage one another, play pranks and conduct heated exchanges in comically mimed gestures. By the end, “Nothing On” has completely disintegrated, as the bloodied and befuddled cast completely ignores the script — except for Brooke, who vacantly soldiers on, nonplussed by the spiraling non sequiturs — in their quest for revenge.

To pull off something this disordered and extravagantly off your rocker, you need expert timing and a rock-solid cast, and this troupe rises admirably to the occasion. The performers execute the numerous pratfalls with alarming authenticity and are always in control, even in the throes of an onstage nervous breakdown. Newcomer Miss McClain displays agile comedic gifts as the airhead Brooke, as does Miss Ferguson as the unraveling meddler Belinda Blair.

Stage pro Mr. Prosky saunters off every scene he’s in as the crafty codger, while Mr. Russell makes an amiable area debut as the put-upon gofer.

Both showbiz insiders and innocents will delight in Arena’s “Noises Off” and its delirious depiction of backstage dramatics and the scarcely contained hysteria that goes into the making of live theater.

****

WHAT: “Noises Off” by Michael Frayn

WHERE: Kreeger Theater, Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Jan. 28.

TICKETS: $55 to $74

PHONE: 202/488-3300 MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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