A Wonderfully Bad Night

The Arizona Repertory Theater's effective actors play bad actors perfectly

Now playing, courtesy of the UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre: bad actors in a tepid comedy. But wait--that's the play within a hilarious farce featuring a very fine troupe of actors, indeed.

Michael Frayn's Noises Off--the title comes from a term for sounds heard offstage--is an inspired 1982 send-up of British sex farces, a superb example of the very thing it mocks. A cut-rate acting company is doing its best--what little that is--to mount a production of a farce called Nothing On. The production isn't the only thing being mounted; the director, Lloyd Dallas, has, shall we say, a leg up on both the stage manager and an exceptionally vacant actress. Meanwhile, two of the show's other actors are engaged in an affair of their own, and another is moping because his wife has just left him.

We arrive around midnight at the show's technical rehearsal, just hours before opening. At this late stage, the blocking remains unsteady; some lines remain half-memorized; actors are still seeking deep motivation for their most trivial bits; and the production is headed for sure disaster. Yet the cast members are quite sweet to each other, making the best of things because they are, after all, professionals. Although you'd never know it from their performances.

One month later, the company is touring the English provinces. Again, we are subjected to Act 1 of Nothing On, but this time from the vantage point of backstage. Most of the relationships have soured in the past weeks, and the actors--some jilted, some jealous, and not necessarily both at once--have declared open warfare on each other. While Nothing On limps along as if all were normal, the actors storm around the backstage area, miming their arguments (so as not to be heard by the audience), and ultimately attacking each other with such weapons as sardine juice and a potted cactus.

Two more months pass, and the company is delivering its final performance. This time, we're back to the front to witness Act 1 of Nothing On yet again, and we can only imagine what's happening backstage as the performance begins to fall apart.

Arizona Repertory Theatre's town 'n' gown production--dominated by townies, in fact, rather than the usual advanced UA drama students--could hardly be better in its awfulness. Comedy is almost never easy, and Noises Off is particularly hard on actors. First, they must play actors playing roles--essentially, they're playing two characters each. To make it worse, they're playing poor actors, which is difficult to do without making the audience suspect that talent really is in short supply. Then there's the grueling second act, when almost nobody gets a moment to rest; when they're "offstage," which is supposedly onstage, they have to act out Nothing On, and when they're "backstage," which as far as we're concerned is onstage, if you're still with me, they need absolute physical precision in the little battles expertly choreographed here by director Samantha K. Wyer.

To their great credit, Wyer and her cast maintain interest even when they have nothing to work with but words. In the first act, they neatly distinguish between very real-seeming actors and the characters the actors play with varying degrees of artificiality. Lindsay Fite is especially effective as the most inattentive and inept of the thespians.

More "normal" are Art Almquist as the nice but inarticulate leading man who turns into a silently raging backstage menace. Adorned with a mustache and an English accent, he could pass for a young Alan Rickman, except that Almquist foregoes Rickman's exasperated superiority. Lesley Abrams is a hoot as an actress of a certain age playing a hapless maid. Brendan Murphy portrays a particularly fragile actor with sympathy; Stephen Elton is appealingly arrogant as the director--just continue down the cast list, and you'll find something substantial to like about each performer.

The one odd choice is to play the "actors" as Americans, even though they're supposed to be performing an English farce on an English tour. Would even a bad company clutter its stage with Americans? As conductor Sir Thomas Beecham once complained of foreign competition on English podiums, "Why do we have to have all these third-rate foreign conductors around, when we have so many second-rate ones of our own?"

The answer (to my question, not Beecham's), I suppose, is that the American accents help delineate the "actors" from the "characters." But without the English accents, the endearments in the first act don't quite ring true. Insofar as actors' endearments can ring true at all.

Sally R. Day's Nothing On set, at least, is true to life, just as rickety as you'd expect from a provincial tour, and her backstage design is full of just-right detail. Patrick Holt provides perfectly tacky costumes to accompany a pop soundtrack drawn from Wyer's beloved 1970s. All in all, Noises Off is a wonderfully bad night at the theater.

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