It is past midnight at the dress rehearsal for a mediocre farce titled “Nothing On,” which is about to launch a national tour at the Grand Theatre in Weston-super-Mare, England. And Lloyd Dallas, who is directing it, is losing his patience.
“We’re not going to be finished before we open tomorrow night,” he cries out in exasperation. “Correction: Before we open tonight.”
That’s the premise — a disastrous rehearsal, with time running out — of the first act of Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off,” the frequently produced 1982 comedy that is currently being presented at the Two River Theater in Red Bank. The actors may be blasé, but Dallas, who considers himself above this (his next project is a production of Shakespeare’s “Richard III”), is losing his mind.
We also, in this act, learn about various backstage dramas. The play’s leading lady, Dotty (Ellen Harvey), is having an affair with her younger leading man, Garry (Michael Crane). The marriage of another actor, Frederick (Jason O’Connell), is falling apart. Yet another actor, Selsdon (Philip Goodwin), has a drinking problem. Director Dallas (Gopal Divan) is sleeping with both the play’s ingenue, Brooke (Adrianna Mitchell), and its assistant stage manager, Poppy (Kimiye Corwin). Stage manager Tim (Phillip Taratula) is overworked to the point of exhaustion.
Act Two skips ahead to a performance, a month later, where everything goes wrong, and we see the mayhem from backstage (courtesy of Two River’s rotating stage). The stage rotates again, and Act Three skips ahead two more months, to the closing night of the tour, where we see some of “Nothing On” once again, on the actual stage. And this time, things go even more spectacularly wrong. We know how “Nothing On” is supposed to go, at this point, so we can tell just how absurdly bad the cast gets it.
Director Sarna Lapine doesn’t try to find new dimensions in Frayn’s script. This is a straightforward, dependably hilarious production of a dependably hilarious play.
It’s pure chaos, both onstage and offstage. Dotty can’t remember her lines, and whether she’s supposed to leave a plate of sardines on the table or take them with her when she exits. Garry is consumed with jealousy. Frederick can’t stand the sight of blood (and has to endure a lot of it, due to various onstage accidents). Brooke keeps losing her contact lenses.
Cast members try, unsuccessfully, to keep Selsdon off the bottle. Dallas fails to keep the two women in his life unaware of each other, and happy.
This is an action-packed, physically demanding comedy, with characters frequently breaking through windows, or falling down stairs, or crawling around helplessly. There are seven doors in Charlie Corcoran’s set, and they are all used frequently, with characters hiding from each other, and coming onstage just when other characters are going off.
“Nothing On” may be a disaster, but the actors in “Noises Off” hit their marks — even when the craziness reaches a feverish peak, in the second act — with the precision of ballet dancers.
Along the way, there’s also a little philosophizing, from the long-suffering Dallas, trying to get his cast in line: “That’s what it’s all about. Doors and sardines. Getting on, getting off. Getting the sardines on, getting the sardines off.
“That’s farce. That’s the theatre. That’s life.”
“Noises Off” will be at the Two River Theater in Red Bank through Feb. 3. Visit tworivertheater.org.