Sardines and Skivvies

As I squeezed through the opening-night crowd of the Alley Theatre's Noises Off, I heard a man ask his companion, "This is British, right?" When his friend said yes, the man exclaimed, "Good!" and all but clapped his hands in approval.

Why, I wondered, was he so happy? To figure out what's funny in England, you can spend one late night watching reruns of The Benny Hill Show, about a dirty old man's wrong-headed and usually misogynistic sexual escapades.

Noises Off, by playwright Michael Frayn, is actually a send-up of shows such as Benny Hill. Though more highbrow and tasteful than the TV show, the play ventures into the same territory: that of quintessential British farce. It's loaded with silly sexual innuendo, confused lovers, jokes about drunks, a woman dressed in nothing but her lacy white scanties and people who repeatedly refer to each other as "darling" and "love." You already know whether this sort of thing is your cup of tea.

The stage lights come up on the last rehearsal of a play entitled Nothing On, a featherweight farce about a plate of sardines, a housekeeper named Mrs. Clackett, a couple trysting in a house they don't own and the house's owners' attempts to avoid the taxman.

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We never find out what happens to any of them, including the sardines, because moments into the rehearsal, the silver-wigged, house-slippered Mrs. Clackett (the very funny Annalee Jefferies) -- or actually, the actress playing Mrs. Clackett, Dotty Otley (also Annalee Jefferies) -- stops rehearsal to figure out whether she's supposed to take the sardines or the newspaper off-stage when she exits.

Lloyd (John Feltch), the wickedly sarcastic director, whose black clothes match his soul, booms out to Dotty from the darkness of the audience: "You leave the sardines."

Dotty peers out into the theater auditorium, looking for the director. "I leave the sardines?"

"Right," says Lloyd. By now he's terribly irritated, though veeery patient in that lovely English way.

"We've changed that, have we, love?" asks Dotty, sweetly confused.
"No, love," says Lloyd.
Dotty's all old-lady befuddlement by now. "That's what I've always been doing?" she asks.

Then, finally, comes the punch line. "I shouldn't say that, my precious," says Lloyd.

To say the least, it's hardly a sure-fire gag. But that's the way farce works: The director and actors set up punch lines that they can only pray will function. Fortunately for the Alley's production, this cast is strong enough to pull off most of the script.

When Michael Frayn's play first opened here in America, back in the early '80s, it was a tremendous hit. Now, though, the 16-year-old script seems somewhat dated, the still amusing jokes a bit creaky in the joints. For instance, the sexy but empty-headed Brooke Ashton (Elizabeth Heflin) keeps losing her contact lens. All the action stops while the entire cast steps with exaggerated care so as not to crush that lens. (Most 18-year-olds probably don't remember the days when contact lenses were constantly popping out of people's eyes.)

It doesn't help that Brooke spends most of the play in her skivvies. Back in the dark ages of the early '80s, maybe a lady's skivvies still held some theatrical interest; now, the underwear seems just another tired sight gag.

The second act of Noises Off takes place backstage during a performance of Nothing On. And the set, designed by Hugh Landwehr, is a star of this production. In fact, the audience cheered as they watched the stagehands pivot the entire set (which stands on a platform as big as the Alley stage) so that the audience could see the plywood backside of the "country home" that is the setting for Nothing On.

Now we find out who's been sleeping with whom in "real life." Of course Lloyd, the condescending though good-looking director, has bedded all the pretty young women involved in his misguided production, including the stage manager, who bears the unfortunate name of Poppy (Linda Larkin). Dotty's been sleeping with Garry (Charles Dean), an actor half her age. Garry thinks Dotty's been sleeping with Frederick Fellowes (Paul Hope). Backstage jealousy rages.

But because the play is happening "out front," all the lovers' madcap misadventures must happen in silence. Thus, Act Two is a series of physical jokes -- Dotty ties Garry's shoelaces together, Dotty ends up with sardines in her hair, everyone stops and searches once more for Brooke's contact. Though all these shenanigans are amusing, they go on and on and on.

In Act Three, the set has turned around, and we are watching another performance of Nothing On. The play, we find, is falling apart. Some of the actors try to keep the show going, but by now, Dotty can't remember where the sardines are, much less when she's supposed to carry them off-stage.

This last act is by far the funniest. The actors stay with their lines though they haven't been given the right cues. The props are all wrong. The whole show -- Nothing On, I mean -- is a mess.

The actors and the script shine during this act. Besides Annalee Jefferies and John Feltch, other standout performances come from Paul Hope, who plays Frederick Fellowes, a scaredy-cat whose nose starts bleeding at the mention of violence; and from Charles Krohn, who plays Selsdon Mowbray, the old drunk, with sweet and funny dignity.

With its almost quaint sexual innuendo, jokes about drinking and slapstick humor, this play won't appeal to everyone. But if you can make it to the third act, you'll probably find yourself laughing out loud.

Noises Off plays through June 14 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 228-9341.

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