Reviewed by George Basler
“Nothing On,” one of the most hackneyed and labored farces in recent memory, is now on display in Owego. And the play’s ineptitude is matched by the cast’s own incompetence and buffoonery
But don’t worry: That’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Watching the aforementioned theatrical disaster unfold is the joy of Noises Off, a superlative farce by English playwright Michael Frayn that is now being given a solid, funny production by the Ti-Ahwaga Community Players.
Noises Off, which was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, follows the misadventures of a second-rate company of actors as they rehearse and then tour through provincial theaters in England, flogging the fourth-rate farce “Nothing On.”
Central to the action is how the cast’s backstage antics play havoc with what goes on in front of the footlights. Frayn reportedly got the idea while watching from the wings during a performance of one of his other plays and realizing just how potentially funny the backstage action could be.
The Ti-Ahwaga production, which runs through March 20, is supremely silly, just as it should be. The play within a play structure is a challenging task to pull off, and the nine-member Ti-Ahwaga cases makes a commendable effort in doing so. The production has enough smiles, chuckles and outright guffaws to make up for the occasional slow spot.
At its heart, Frayn’s play is an affectionate send-up of the time-honored English sex farce with such winking titles as No Sex Please, We’re British and Run for Your Wife. As is the case with any good farce, Noises Off is filled with twists and turns that are incomprehensible on paper but make perfect sense, at least within the conventions of farce, on stage.
The first act takes place during the final dress rehearsal before opening night as an imperious director takes the woefully unprepared and befuddled cast through the first act of “Nothing On,” which is shaping up as one gigantic turkey. (The plot of the faux farce, if you’re interested, focuses on tax dodges, mistaken identities and randy doings in an English country house.)
The motley cast features a once-popular sitcom actress who can’t remember her lines or cues, a hopelessly inarticulate leading man, a myopic and scatter-brained ingénue, an overly sensitive second leading man, a backstage gossip monger, a dipsomaniac veteran actor and two exasperated and abused stage managers.
The second act takes place backstage a month later while the play is being performed. Familiarity has bred contempt as inter-personal tensions and sour love affairs lead the actors to begin sabotaging each other. Civility takes a hit, and pandemonium ensues.
The third act takes place two months later as the play is finishing its tour. By this time, things have gone to hell in a handbasket. The actors no longer care, and Murphy’s Law — whatever can go wrong will go wrong — takes complete control of one of the last performance. The actors’ vain attempts to muddle through the on-stage shambles makes for some very funny moments.
Director Brian Flynn, for the most part, keeps the action going at a fast pace through all three acts. The staging is helped by an impressive set, designed by Gerry Arbes, that rotates 180 degrees between the first and second acts to show the backstage shenanigans.
That being said, the Ti-Ahwaga has some dead time and pacing problems, especially at the beginning of the second act. At the performance I saw, the cast’s timing seemed a bit off, and the action took a while to get going. Still, the act had enough well-played physical comedy to provide its share of laughs.
As the increasingly frazzled director, James T. Cornell does a good job portraying someone who is nowhere near as skilled as he thinks he is, and a bit of a cad besides. Kristina Jackson is extremely funny as the ingénue, who is a dim bulb if there ever was one. Her expressions and awkward on-stage gestures convey her character’s ineptness and self-absorption.
Kathy Harris is a hoot as the faded television star, who considers herself something of a diva, but is actually an old ham. Harris gives a broad performance that fits the character, especially when she is required to manage more than one prop at a time. Shawn L. Yetter also gives a humorously broad performance as the dipsomaniac actor who spends more time looking for liquor bottles than learning his lines.
Shane Smith is suitably vague as the vacuous leading man whose anger gets the best of him in the second act. His physical pratfalls in that act are one of the production’s high points. Yale Williams is also fine as the second male lead, a chronically insecure actor who suffers from nose bleeds whenever his emotions get the best of him. However, Williams’ performance could have benefited from injecting a little more pomposity into his character.
Christine Havens-Hafer does a capable job as a veteran actress, and backstage gossip, who tries to be a voice of reason as chaos unfolds. Her character, though, is a thankless one. Peggy Medina and Logan Smith have funny moments as the stage managers, especially when they make announcements over the PA system trying unsuccessfully to mask the chaos backstage.
At the end of the day, Noises Off, while not perfect, is a clever and entertaining show. Sometimes a little silliness is just what the doctor ordered.
P.S. Be sure to read the funny fake program for “Nothing On,” handed out before the third act.
IF YOU GO: The Ti-Ahwaga Community Players’ production of Noises Off opened March 4 and will run through March 20 at the Ti-Ahwaga Performing Arts Center, 42 Delphine St., Owego. Performances are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $20 ($18 for seniors 60 and over and students under 18). Tickets can be purchased at www.tiahwaga.com or by calling 607-687-2130 weekdays between noon and 3 p.m.