For a lot of theatergoers, all you have to do is think of one of those dreadful British sex farces of the 1980s – Run for Your Wife, anyone? – and you can feel your IQ points dropping as the smarm level reaches record highs.
But farce doesn’t have to be that way. Farce can be sublime. And Michael Frayn’s Noises Off may be the sublimest of them all.
Frayn, who translates Chekhov and writes plays about politics (Democracy) and nuclear physics (Copenhagen), is not your typical farcemeister. So much the better: It takes smarts to create perfection.
Take, for example, the intricate plotting in Frayn’s 1982 comedy, which is set in and around a production of a second-rate sex farce, Nothing On, by a third-rate British touring company. In the first act, an aggravated director tries to lead his hapless company through the technical rehearsal of its lamebrain show, with opening night looming just hours away. Act II catches up with the company a month or so later, with the audience looking on backstage as the show-within-a-show disintegrates on the other side of the curtain.
By Act III, the company is three months into the run, and what you see of Nothing On onstage makes a train wreck look inviting.
Re-creating a train wreck onstage is not a simple matter. And Jester, despite some minor monkeying with the setting and a few missed opportunities here and there, proves once again that Noises Off may be the funniest play there is.
Director Jay Hopkins has turned Frayn’s British company into an American one and moved the action from a succession of hyphenated, out-of-the-way British towns (Weston-super-Mare, Ashton-under-Lyne, Stockton-on-Tees) to a trio of not-so-funny-sounding American ones (Chapel Hill, Boca Raton and Winter Garden). The changes seem pointless: Hopkins’s cast handles Nothing On’s British accents fairly flawlessly, and there’s something a lot sillier about Weston-super-Mare – and about a theater troupe touring there – than there is about Chapel Hill.
Nonetheless, Jester’s troupe is game for anything, and that’s pretty much what it encounters on the show’s big set. (Hopkins also designed the two-story set, complete with the requisite eight doors, which turns into an appropriately seedy backstage for the second act.) None of these characters is at his or her best, and this cast makes the most of those failings.
Marty Stonerock brings warmth and vulnerability to Dotty Otley, Nothing On’s slightly over-the-hill producer and leading lady: This is a Dotty who’s less, well, dotty than she is simply overcome. Keith Smith, too, is nicely worn and genial as the dimwitted and increasingly tentative Frederick Fellowes, the play-within-a-play’s leading man, and Sarah Lee Dobbs finds the maternal side to Belinda Blair, the leading lady who tries her damnedest to take care of everyone else onstage.
Hopkins himself may be a little less brittle and high-and-mighty than you might expect of Lloyd Dallas, the troupe’s over-vexed director, and the able Becky Eck isn’t given enough to do with Poppy Norton-Taylor, the overlooked stage manager whose private woes get in the way of her work.
But Tyler Cravens is amusingly vague as the exhausted tech guy, Tim Allgood, and Don Fowler – in a role usually given to a much older man – is a disheveled stitch as Selsdon Mowbray, the agreeable but half-crocked veteran of the company.
In a slew of good performances, two stand out. Jason Horne brings a combative edge to Garry Lejeune, the hopelessly inarticulate young actor who thinks that someone else is trying to make a play for his backstage flame. Horne starts out hearty and gets fiercer and fiercer, which is hilarious in a character who can’t put two words together.
And it’s impossible to take your eyes off Meggin Stailey, cast against type as the bombshell starlet Brooke Ashton, who’s like a deer caught in headlights as she tries to keep the play-within-a-play going while chaos reigns around her. Stailey’s automaton-like Brooke is such a bad actress that she gesticulates all over the place, and she calms herself with weird, yoga-like exercises that must be seen to be believed.
This production loses a little of its humor in the largely mimed second act, which isn’t as crisp as it might be. But that’s a minor problem in a show that has so much humor to spare – so many pairs of pants around the ankles, so much vengeance, so many falls. You can boast until you’re blue in the face that what you really like is high-toned witticism. But I dare you to spend an evening with Noises Off and not chortle up a storm.
What: Jester Theater Company production of Michael Frayn farce.
Where: Garden Theatre, 160 W. Plant St., Winter Garden.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Nov. 7.
Cost: $24 general, $20 seniors and students.
Photo (clockwise from upper left): Becky Eck, Don Fowler, Keith Smith, Jay Hopkins, Sarah Lee Dobbs,, Jason Horne, Meggin Stailey, Marty Stonerock and Tyler Cravens. Photo courtesy of Jester Theater Company.