"That's what it's all about," Lloyd Dallas, the philandering theater director tells his hapless cast in the frenzied first lines of Michael Frayn's farce-within-a-farce, Noises Off. "Doors and sardines. Getting on — getting off. Getting the sardines on — getting the sardines off. That's farce. That's the theater. That's life."
That is life. And it ain't easy — at least it's not these days at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' frantic and very funny staging of Frayn's beloved comedy, which follows a regional theater company's ill-fated production of the execrable sex parody, Nothing On. Of course, the imaginary play's program notes have higher aspirations for the production, excerpting as they do "Eros Untrousered," a curious little fiction by one J.G. Stillwater, who opines that the bedroom comedy is a sexual variant on the archetypal "quest" narrative, where partial disrobement suggests a "stripping away of worldly illusions" and dropping trou is an "allusion to the Fall of Man."
But sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And judging from the steady guffaws erupting from the audience last Friday night, director Edward Stern and his very able cast know that sometimes dropping trou is, well, just plain funny.
Originally written as a one-act play named Exits in 1977, the oft-revised Noises Off opens as a woefully unprepared theater company runs through its final dress rehearsal for Nothing On, in which two pairs of lovers (and lots of sardines) have secretly retreated to a secluded country home for a bit of afternoon delight. But the action is quickly cut short. Many of the players mistakenly think they're running through the play's final technical rehearsal, hopelessly trying to figure out which door to enter and the whereabouts of all that fish. The play tumbles downhill in the second act, set backstage, as two crumbling love triangles (and one dipsomaniacal thespian) threaten to sink the production, their seething jealousies and backstage vendettas spilling over into a matinee performance. The show's come completely undone by Act Three, set during an onstage performance, when the cast's broken show-mances have come to a full boil. The actors are more concerned with exacting vengeance and undermining their fellow players than they are with performing Nothing On, which dissolves into an ad-libbed fiasco of misplaced props, comedic blunders and false entrances.
Farcical theater isn't for everyone. After all, at some level it really does come down to doors and sardines — getting on, getting off — and not much else. That said, Noises Off is a virtuosic take on the form. It employs all the genre's usual suspects — the mistaken identities, the pratfalls, the thwarted passion, slippery props and dramatic irony — only here they do double duty, as the props and action shift between backstage confusion and onstage debacle. The writing is wildly intricate, and the show is so feverishly conceived — with many actors playing dual roles, often simultaneously — that it can be mind-bending to keep track, let alone to know where to watch as multiple imbroglios unfold at once.
If it's bewildering to the audience, just imagine how exacting this tightly choreographed scramble must be to perform. Nevertheless, director Stern and his ensemble cast rise to the play's chaotic pace, smoothly delivering its blend of over-the-top lines and slapstick humor. Particularly good is John Scherer in the role of Garry Lejeune, the preening star who is unable to articulate an unscripted thought. Dale Hodges is also terrific in the role of Dotty Otley, an aging actress who's producing the show and sleeping with two fellow cast members. The rest of the cast equals this pair, with great performances by Fletcher McTaggart as Lloyd Dallas, the show's Don Juan director; Joneal Joplin in the role of Selsdon Mowbray, its tippler in residence; and Ruth Pferdehirt as the overacting starlet Brooke Ashton. Filled with banging doors and disappearing props, James Wolk's marvelous set plays a starring role of its own. (His dual two-sided creation nearly garnered a standing ovation at the beginning to the second act when it rotated 180 degrees, the onstage set for Nothing On disappearing to reveal its backstage workings.)
As farce, the show is pure distraction. And though Stillwater's accompanying "essay" may insist that the prevalence of striped underwear refers to "the stripes of the tiger, the feral beast that lurks in all of us," Noises Off serves as a powerful reminder that sometimes a plate of sardines can be just that — and much, much more.