If Michael Frayn's peerless farce Noises Off! isn't the funniest play ever written, I don't know what is. And if this isn't one of the Alley Theatre's most satisfying productions, as witless character Garry Lejeune would say...you know...
This whiplash, slapstick, out-of-control train is Frayn's loving, heartfelt, silly valentine to the theater, a sloppy air kiss to all those who labor so long and hard to put on a show, no matter how awful it is nor how hapless the performers. Here, the show these second-rate, bumbling actors perform is a third-rate sex farce called Nothing On. (The fictional cast get bios in the Playbill that are as funny as the play.)
The pickup company is about to tour the provinces, and, need I say, they're not ready — and never will be. In Frayn's three-acter, we watch them stumble through Nothing On's first act during a disastrous dress rehearsal hours before the premiere, then, in stunning coup de théâtre fashion for Act II, we watch the same act from backstage a few weeks later on tour, when nerves and relationships have begun to fray. In Frayn's Act III, we're back in the audience for the final performance and watch the first act again as all the remaining wheels that haven't fallen off before fly off as in a cartoon.
Through June 24. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421. $39 - $77.
Freyn's immensely well-oiled machine never slows up and never, ever stops. Let's start with Dotty Otley (Kimberly King), the actress/producer of this cheap bus-and-truck road show who's financed this witless sex farce to augment her dwindling pension. It's final dress rehearsal, and she still can't remember her rudimentary blocking with that pesky plate of sardines. Does she exit with them after she puts down the telephone and the newspaper, or is she supposed to exit with the newspaper and leave the sardines, or hang up the phone and leave the newspaper and take the sardines? She never gets it right, and the business with the sardines is a running gag throughout.
Everything that Frayn masterfully constructs builds in hilarity and eventually pays off in our even bigger guffaws. The second act not only contains those ubiquitous fishy props but also ups the ante with a fireman's ax and a potted cactus. You can guess where the cactus ends up.
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What a magnificent ensemble cast — the Alley one, that is, not the Nothing On one. Along with the delightful King (who doesn't appear often enough at the Alley) as besotted Dotty, the actors include vets and some new faces we're eager to see again. The Alley pros include James Black, as harried, overbearing director Lloyd (wittily costumed and made up to look like Alley Artistic Director Gregory Boyd, who has directed this romp with split-second silent-movie-comedy pizzaz); Josie de Guzman, as sweet-tempered gossip Belinda, whose "the-show-must-go-on" attitude gets a rude awakening as the tour progresses; Melissa Pritchett, as bombshell, dumb-as-a-stump Brooke, oblivious to whatever mayhem is going on around her as she spills out of her skimpy costume; John Tyson, as washed-up Selsdon, always stashing a bottle of alcohol somewhere close where he can get at it and miss his cues; and Todd Waite, as quivering, nosebleed-prone Freddie, always asking for his character's motivation and never quite getting it.
The new faces to savor are Mic Matarrese, as aging ingenue Garry, who mistakenly believes Dotty is having an affair with Freddie and who, later, with shoelaces tied together — don't ask, but it's awfully funny — has the best accidental tumble down stairs since Buster Keaton; Allison Guinn, as sadsack Poppy, the ineffectual stage manager, who mistakenly announces a very personal secret to the entire audience through the loudspeaker; and Ben Diskant, as overworked innocent company member Tim, who understudies Freddie, Garry and Selsdon, and probably would for Dotty, Brooke and Belinda, if necessary.
As these nine loonies careen about the stage, all whirl like pinwheels. Pratfalls are as necessary to farce as a well-turned naughty phrase — Frayn's double-entendre dialogue is just as witty as the outlandish physical shtick — and these pros must be exhausted after such a workout, although the effort doesn't show. Meanwhile, we're left black and blue from laughing so hard. Hugh Landwehr's lollipop-colored set is a farce fun house with eight — count them — eight doorways that the actors, as they enter or leave, open or bang shut with the perfection of a Swiss watch run amok. In a well-crafted farce, there can never be too many doors.
No matter what mood you may be in when you enter the Alley, be warned, you'll leave laughing. You won't be able to resist its charms. There's a special place in heaven for Frayn's play, and for the Alley's solid production, too. Goofy and frenetic, with an internal logic that defies the norm yet shows us our own foibles, this spectacular comedy puts us squarely on cloud nine. As we settle in, all comfy on our fluffy cushion, all we can do is look down at ourselves and...well, you know...laugh.