The British fondness for comic schadenfreude is captured perfectly in Michael Frayn’s farce “Noises Off, directed by Leila Saad and running at AUC’s Falaki Theater until Dec.8.
The play, written in 1982, brings backstage onstage through its central conceit of the play within a play. The cast of 11, members of a mediocre acting company, are performing “Nothing On set in a 16th century country house.
“Nothing On is a dire sex comedy in the vein of “Carry On, the series of British low-budget comedies. The events revolve around the tax-evading owners of the house, Philip and Flavia. They have secretly slipped back into the US from Spain for a naughty weekend.
Unbeknownst to them, their housekeeper (Mrs Clakett) is at home, as is a representative, (Roger) from the letting agents, who is pretending that he owns the house in order to impress his lady friend, Vicki. Lots of door-slamming ensues, as misplaced items – and, in particular, Mrs Clakett’s plate of sardines – gradually reveals to the panicky characters that they are not alone in the house.
We see these same events three times in the three acts of “Noises Off. Act I opens on the acting company’s last minute technical rehearsal in Virginia, orders barked at the clueless actors by the domineering Director Lloyd (played by Mark Visona) from the first row of the audience.
The audience had in fact entered the Falaki Theater to find Lloyd and the two understudies already sitting in the front row, an ingenious touch which has the effect of increasing the audience’s sense of involvement with the play.
The faulty props and missed cues of Act I introduce the characters. They swiftly reveal the backstage politics and intrigue which will be the play’s undoing, and which largely revolves around Lloyd’s philandering with both the ditzy Brooke, who plays Vicki in “Nothing On (performed by Kate Jopson), and Assistant Stage Manager Poppy (Basma Matta).
Meanwhile, Dotty (Mrs Clakett in “Nothing On, played by Samia Assad) is involved in a torrid affair with Gary (Roger in “Nothing On, played by Alexander Hadshi) while all are attempting to keep the burglar Selsdon’s (Maria Costanza) drinking problem in check.
While the play gets off to a somewhat slow start in Act I, Act II is performed brilliantly, a masterpiece of physical comedy in which the same events of Act I are repeated but this time from backstage as the company delivers a disastrous performance one month later in Florida.
Jopson is excellent as the clueless Brooke who mechanically delivers her lines and is entirely oblivious to the chaos raging around her. She is a perfect foil to Gary, who manfully attempts to keep the play from unravelling while simultaneously trying to contain the jealous rage incited by Dotty’s flirting with the hapless Frederick (Philip in “Nothing On, played by Nate Freeman).
There was something of the “Basil Fawlty about Hadshi’s manic running up and downstairs, and door slamming, and both Hadshi and Freeman brilliantly performed the often arduous slapstick demanded of their roles. The chaos and physicality of the second act’s onstage and backstage dramas demanded perfect timing – which the cast delivered; the audience was roaring with laughter.
Between Acts II and III, Tim, the useless stage manager (Frank Cheung), addresses the audience directly as behind him the mobile set is wheeled around to restore the first act’s front of house. This cemented the audience’s sense of being complicit in the action, witnesses to the acting company’s painful collapse in Act III.
Dotty dominates the final act, and Assad brilliantly portrays the jaded, disillusioned actress who comes onstage drunk and bitter. The remaining cast members are forced to improvise around her, the play unravelling entirely, laying bare the characters’ personal crises.
Theater mocks itself in “Noises Off, and the AUC production is hilarious – a must see.