Katie Fabel, Andrew Weems, Harriet Harris,
and Laila Robins in Noises Off
(© Gerry Goodstein)
Katie Fabel, Andrew Weems, Harriet Harris,
and Laila Robins in Noises Off
(© Gerry Goodstein)
Michael Frayn's Noises Off is one of the funniest backstage comedies ever -- a work so seamlessly written and perfectly timed that amateur companies often do it well. So it's hardly surprising that the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's professional production, directed with style and confidence by Paul Mullins and headlined by Tony Award winner Harriet Harris, offers laugh after laugh, to the point where one's stomach begins to cramp.

Anyone who's ever slogged through a late-night dress rehearsal will recognize the almost giddy weariness of the cast of the show's play-within-a-play, Nothing On. Star Dottie Ottley (played with elegant befuddlement by Harris) is playing a Cockney housekeeper who is giving exposition on the telephone in the time-honored tradition of works like Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap -- but she can't remember whether she's supposed to take the plate of sardines offstage or leave it onstage, hang up the phone or not, leave the newspaper or not. She's interrupted with heavy sarcasm by her director, Lloyd (played by Andrew Weems as a cross between an irritable talk-show host and a professor of English literature), while co-star Garry (Scott Barrow, who looks like a young Tony Perkins), intercedes to defend her.

Next, Garry's stage wife, Belinda Blair (the charming Laila Robins) enters twirling with glee, declaiming "I love technicals." Despite her lady-bountiful air, Belinda also loves to gossip, telling her castmates about all the backstage intrigue, notably the affairs between Garry and much older Dottie, and Lloyd and dizzy blonde Brooke (the innocently bawdy Katie Fabel) who says "sorry" whenever spoken to and is always losing her contact lens.

The dress rehearsal is also hampered by fears that hammy older actor Selsdon (played to the hilt by Edmond Genest) will begin drinking again, and by worries that the complicated set, a Tudor house full of doors, will not be finished in time for opening night. Meanwhile, stage manager Tim (a properly dazed Jack Moran) hasn't slept in days, and Fred (an elegant Matt Bradford Sullivan) gets nosebleeds and fainting spells whenever he sees violence.

Act Two takes this set-up and runs with it, taking the audience backstage at a particularly troublesome performance of Nothing On. Dottie and Gary are fighting, while Lloyd is visiting in order to rally Brooke, but wants to avoid having assistant stage manager Poppy (Jessica Ires Morris) see the flowers he's brought Brooke. The actors are scrambling to make their entrances, flying into jealous rages, and playing pranks on one another -- all with high emotions raging. In Frayn's clever scheme, Act III takes us back in front of this troubled production. (The changeover of the intricate unit set by Charlie Calvert from backstage to the Tudor House receives a deserved set of applause.)

Noises Off isn't a deep work: the relationships never resolve, and it doesn't say anything particularly fresh about theater -- but it does provide a couple of hours of very welcome laughs.