There’s nothing quite as entertaining as watching somebody screw up royally. Noises Off, a current production by the Nevada Repertory Company, is a comedic ensemble farce about an inept touring company performing a comedic ensemble farce called Nothing On. It’s sort of a meta-farce, an über-farce. The joy of a good farce is the mix of sympathy and mean-spirited glee that we feel while watching things go very badly for other people. And things go very badly for these people.
Noises Off consists of three performances of Nothing On: the dress rehearsal, a mid-tour matinee, and the closing night of the disastrous touring run. The play-within-the-play, about the secretive going-ons in an English country home, is quite funny unto itself (though we never see it successfully performed without interruption), but most of the humor of this comedy of errors is in the mistakes of the play-actors—as well as a lot of backstage gossiping. The first act of Noises Off, featuring last-minute bickering between the cast and crew of the woefully under-prepared production, starts the audience off with a few minutes of uncertain smirks before slowly building up to roaring belly laughs.
The first act is probably the most successful, but some of the best moments are in the other two acts. The second act features the backstage action of the Nothing On cast. The set is turned around and, funnily, the “backstage” set is far more impressive than the “on-stage” set. Whereas the first act is mostly comic banter, the second act is almost all pantomime and slapstick, with just fleeting glimpses of the horrible on-stage action. One of the best moments of the play is during the jealous, wide-eyed, ax-wielding, backstage frenzy of Dottie Otley (Evonne Kezios).
The third act returns the set to its front-facing position with just fleeting glimpses of the horrible backstage action. By this point, the play-performers have resigned themselves to nearly aimless goofball slapstick, the best moment of which is Garry Lejeune’s (Ryan Paloma) very impressive pratfall down a full flight of stairs. This last act lacks the delicate tension of the first two acts but nearly makes up for it with a lot of personal injuries.
At first, I was slightly bothered that it was sometimes difficult to differentiate between the play-actors and their characters. But it makes sense because the Nothing On cast and crew aren’t at all talented. One play-actor that is easy to differentiate from his character is Selsdon Mowbray (Scott House), a drunken old sod, whose hammy performance as a cat burglar is wonderfully awful.
Another comedic highlight is the array of vapid stares and prima donna pouts of Brooke Ashton (Hana Freeman), who spends most of the play wearing nothing but lingerie. Which is not only very sexy and very revealing but as bright red as a cartoon fire truck (and, honestly, it’s hard to look anywhere else whenever she’s on stage).
The direction, by Dr. Jim Bernardi, is deft. The performers pull off the mean feat of well-timed slapstick: making carefully plotted choreography appear graceless and haphazard. The cast members all perform with (presumably) phony English accents to mostly good effect. And though I thought I might have noticed an occasional accent slip, missed cue or goofed line, the premise of the play makes it nearly impossible to discern real mistakes — it all just seems like part of the cruel fun.