Actors Theatre of Louisville launched its 50th anniversary season last night with a rowdy champagne cork pop. Opening night of Michael Frayn’s crowd-pleasing backstage comedy “Noises Off” truly felt like a celebration of all that is fun about live theater.
With gently bawdy wit and some impressive feats of physical comedy, the play offers an insider’s laugh at the theater world, but its broad humor and endearing characters also make the show accessible to a general audience. “Noises Off” runs in the Pamela Brown Auditorium through September 22.
Directed by associate artistic director Meredith McDonough (who served as former artistic director Jon Jory’s directing assistant the last time Actors produced the show in 1998), the production boasts a top-notch ensemble of comedic actors portraying the on-stage foibles and backstage antics of the oddball cast and crew of a fictional thinly-written English bedroom farce, “Nothing On.”
The humor in “Noises Off” is brutally physical at times, but in terms of content, it stays firmly in the safe zone of jealous girlfriends and forgotten lines. There’s nothing particularly edgy about it, which can feel a bit quaint. And Frayn’s tight script doesn’t allow much room for improv, where elements of unexpected danger might insert themselves.
We see the first act of “Nothing On” three times. It starts out on shaky ground and deteriorates from there into pure chaos. Daniel Zimmerman’s beautiful revolving stage takes the action from on-stage during the show’s disastrous dress rehearsal in act one to a backstage brawl during an early performance, then back on-stage for the show’s apocalyptic closing night.
The show’s second act is the most technically impressive. McDonough, fight director Drew Fracher and fall coach Jacob Guinn (this show has its own fall coach!) created a beautiful dance. We watch the show go on from backstage, where various rivalries and love triangles-gone-sour escalate into war, the cast struggling to land their cues while exacting and receiving various doses of revenge between entrances. The intricately choreographed fight scenes are executed without dialog (quiet backstage, please!) and with all the silent, frenetic shenanigans, it was difficult to focus on all of it at once, and some points get a little lost in the shuffle.
By act three, when the cast goes completely off its rails, nobody’s dignity survives. It’s a nifty trick when an actor has to depict a comic deterioration of self and composure—the actors have to turn ever tighter corners to make their characters look completely out of control. Corey Brill is quite funny as tongue-tied leading man Garry Lejeune, who embarks on a romance with veteran actress Dotty Otley (Dori Legg), who humiliates him frequently over the course of their tour, pushing him into acts of physical and emotional desperation. As maternal (if gossipy) actress Belinda, Laura Jordan molds her face into an endless supply of spot-on reactions, with one particularly evocative act of pantomime delivers one of the most gratifying belly laughs of the evening.
Rebecca Gibel gives the dippy, scantily-clad ingénue Brooke a dangerous set of teeth, while Jeremy Lawrence plays drunken, forgetful Selsdon – the comic relief, oddly enough – with a gentle cluelessness that somehow manages to make Selsdon’s scenery chewing endearing, even admirable. When frustrated director Lloyd (Andy Grotelueschen) and stage manager Tim (the hilarious Nathan Keepers, a master of the pratfall) end up on stage with Selsdon at one point, their scene together is priceless. Brad Heberlee manages to infuse second-fiddle Freddie with a cartoonishly crushing amount of heart with just a few key expressions.
Again, there’s not much wiggle room in Frayn’s tight script, but I wished for a more intense connection portrayed somehow between Lloyd and assistant stage manager Poppy (Maya Lawson), whose relationship is interrupted by an affair. Admittedly, emotional arcs are fairly secondary to the gags in this show, but it couldn’t hurt to have a bit more investment in the characters with the most at stake.
Don’t miss Frayn’s extra program for “Nothing On,” with its wacky actor bios (Garry is “best-known as CORNETTO, the ice cream salesman who stirs the hearts of the lollipop ladies”) and wacky prop credits.