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Critic: Simon Saltzman. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on January

19, 2000. All rights reserved.

Review: `Noises Off’ at Paper Mill

Don’t even think about a sneaky retreat up the aisle

of the Paper Mill Playhouse during Act I of "Noises Off."

If you do, the chances are you will collide head-on with a distressed

director irately heading toward the stage of what he believes to be

the Grand Theater in Weston-Super-Mare in England. It is here that

a second-rate (to give them more credit than they deserve) troupe

of actors is attempting, during a final frantic dress rehearsal, to

tie up the loose ends of a sex farce called "Nothing On."

Brian Murray, an actor who is always a pleasure to watch, plays the

director Lloyd Dallas, repeating the role he played in the original

Broadway production in 1983. Over the years, Murray has shown us many

unforgettable faces, in both classic and contemporary plays. Be

alerted

that you now have the opportunity to see him repeat one his most

savory

comic portrayals.

If British playwright Michael Frayn’s exceedingly clever

on-stage/backstage

farce, which enjoyed long runs in London and New York, isn’t as

consistently

funny as its premise suggests, we can’t blame this grand company of

farceurs. If you do survive the test of a rather tedious first act

that lasts almost an hour, the comical rewards do eventually appear.

The play’s plodding exposition is purposely designed to prepare us

for the remaining two hours of often overripe slapstick. The

temperaments

and relationships of the mostly unhinged company are so much window

dressing designed to interfere with business but fuel the comedy.

In Act II, the play’s action moves on to the company’s next stop on

its provincial tour, viewed from a backstage perspective. Animosities,

hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and a general disregard for their

performing art become, for Frayn’s inane characters, a zany excuse

for a silent-movie-style charade of pratfalls, booby traps, and

occasional

side-splitting sight gags that spill over directly to the performance

in progress.

As you might expect, innumerable bedroom, closet, and other extraneous

doors — all with faulty knobs, latches, and hinges — are the

attention-grabbing elements in designer Michael Anania’s somehow not

quite seedy enough-looking set. But you’ll want to keep both eyes

fixed on the inevitable appearance and disappearance of naughty

lingerie

and fallen trousers, the split-second entrances and exits, as well

as missed cues and misplaced props.

Not to be upstaged is an increasingly menacing plate of sardines,

a treacherous cactus plant, and an almost-animated telephone receiver,

that have all been called into service. The fun of this type of farce

is to watch the ingenuity of a company hell bent on a kamikaze course,

while we, the audience, having almost memorized by this time the

one-and

two-syllable script, respond predictably to the utter confusion.

Out to get each other short of murder most foul, the troupe in Act

III is about to give a Wednesday matinee during the last leg

(literally)

of its tour. As members of the audience at the Municipal Theater,

Stockton-On-Ties, we finally get to see a "regular"

performance

of "Nothing On," as it hurtles toward self-destruction. James

Brennan’s direction makes as much (non-) sense out of the seemingly,

but obviously not, senseless script, as can be expected.

As Dotty Otley, the troupe’s producer who is concurrently playing

the role of a maid and having an affair with the juvenile lead, Anne

Rogers is notably to-the-genre-born, playing her character as a bundle

of insecurities run amok. Also having their share of backstage flings

are Edward Staudenmayer as Garry Lejeune, Dotty’s romantic interest

who can’t complete a thought or a sentence; Fiona Gallagher as Brooke

Ashton, the director’s ditsy girlfriend who drops her dress as

frequently

as her contact lenses; and Blair Sams as Poppy Norton-Taylor, the

harried stage manager and director’s ex-love interest.

Perhaps the funniest of the lot are Graeme Malcolm as the dimwitted

Frederick Fellow, who keeps insisting on plausible motivations for

his character; Lisby Larson as Belinda Blair, the company troublemaker

(like it needed one); and Leo Leyden, who plays the role of Selsdon

Mowbray, the alcoholic old trouper, with dazed senile assurance. If

in the end, the show’s set appears sturdier than the farce it

supports,

"Noises Off," is festooned with enough trappings and prompts

enough laughs to perk up any traditional January letdown at the

theater.

— Simon Saltzman

Noises Off, Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive,

Millburn,

973-376-4343. $36 to $60. Through February 13.


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