The final rehearsal isn't going well. Doors are sticking, actors are botching their cues and mixing up props, the ingénue loses a contact lens, and the half-deaf veteran with a fondness for tippling is nowhere to be found. From here, the chaos will only increase, as real-life relationships intensify and disrupt the choreographed confusions of the play within a play.
"Doors and sardines. Getting on – getting off. Getting the sardines on – getting the sardines off," the embattled director, Lloyd Dallas (Greg Wood, anchoring the ensemble), explains to the refractory cast of the sex comedy Nothing On in Michael Frayn's Noises Off. "That's farce. That's the theater. That's life."
And that's the closest this elegantly structured show, in a perfectly competent revival at the Walnut Street Theatre through April 29, comes to philosophy.
Frayn, whose 1998 drama Copenhagen was produced this season by the Lantern Theater Company, is both writing farce and sending up the form. Noises Off reaches frenetically for laughs through humor high and low, with a profusion of puns, sight gags, and physical comedy. Director Frank Anzalone and a cast of local favorites — including Ben Dibble, Mary Martello, John P. Connolly, and Susan Riley Stevens — mostly nail them.
At the same time, Frayn is painting life in the theater – and life in general — as an inevitably farcical endeavor. (One thinks of the absurdist repetitions of Ionesco's The Bald Soprano, with its more radical interrogation of language and middle-class conventions.)
In Noises Off, the director analogizes himself to a deity, albeit one in need of Valium and prone to catastrophically inept womanizing. At the Walnut, Wood's superb comic timing is matched by Dibble's, as an actor who can never quite complete his thought, and complemented by Martello's slapstick skills (though her Cockney housekeeper character is initially hard to understand).
Since its 1982 London premiere, Noises Off has enjoyed three Broadway productions (the most recent in 2015) and entered the theatrical canon. A 1992 film adaptation starring Michael Caine, Carol Burnett, and Christopher Reeve retained the British setting of the play within a play, but made the actors American, setting up strong contrasts with their characters.
The Walnut production differentiates less clearly between the actors and their roles, and Anzalone directs Alanna J. Smith, as the contact-lens-obsessed Brooke, who plays the improbable tax inspector Vicki, much more broadly than her movie counterpart. (The stereotype of the beautiful, ditzy female hasn't aged well.)
The play's title refers to a theatrical stage direction indicating sounds coming from backstage. And its principal conceit derives from Frayn's experience of standing in the wings during a performance of an earlier farce of his and finding the offstage action more comic.
Sure enough, after the intermission of Noises Off, Robert Koharchik's detailed British country house set, with its handsome wooden paneling and myriad doors, swivels to take us backstage. While the company, now touring England, is (once again) performing Act One, the actors are scheming, quarreling, and otherwise enacting another farce, often in pantomime, behind the scenes.
But the show's real comic payoff comes – after perhaps too long a wait – in the zany third act. As this final, off-the-rails take on Act One of Nothing On goes completely wrong, the Walnut ensemble gets the disaster hilariously right.