Farcical 'Noises Off' gets frenzied, funny revival at Metropolis
"Noises Off" -- ★ ★ ★ ★
Farce is fiendishly difficult to master. It has to be crisp. It has to be animated. It has to be impeccably timed. The actors must have command of the dialogue, dexterity to handle slapstick and enough energy to sustain that over a couple of acts at least.
One of the greatest tests of an ensemble's comedic capabilities is "Noises Off," Michael Frayn's brilliantly constructed, 1982 backstage farce. Because it's such a demanding piece, Metropolis Performing Arts Centre's announcement that the 2020 season would include Frayn's madcap play both delighted and concerned me.
Over the last five years, the Arlington Heights theater has become bolder and more ambitious in its selections, which have included such shows as "Avenue Q," "Hair," "Rent," "Peter and the Starcatcher" and "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" among others. More often than not, the ambition paid off. But a farce like Frayn's poses challenges. And I confess I thought Metropolis might not be up to the task.
I needn't have worried.
From the sight gags and sexual innuendo to the pratfalls and inside-theater puns, director Joe Lehman's fast-paced, keenly acted, laugh-out-loud revival is spot on.
Both a sendup and an homage to the theater, Frayn's farce-within-a-farce centers on a second-rate theater troupe touring England's provinces in a third-rate sex comedy titled "Nothing On," by the fictional Robin Housemonger, a onetime hosiery wholesaler.
As embattled director Lloyd Dallas (the drolly sarcastic Guy Wicke) explains to his cast, Housemonger's play doesn't bear much scrutiny. It's all about doors and sardines, he says.
"Getting on ... Getting off. Getting the sardines on, getting the sardines off. That's farce," he says. "That's the theater. That's life."
That's life indeed for this hapless ensemble whose tour is bankrolled by faded TV actress Dotty Otley (a sweetly eccentric Julie Partyka). In "Nothing On," she plays a sardine-loving housekeeper at an English estate, crafted as an impressive two-story country home by set designer Evan Frank that rotates 180 degrees to reveal the backstage area.
Partyka's Dotty is the ostensible celebrity draw for this touring show, whose cast includes the comically inarticulate Garry (a tireless, tongue-tied Neil Stratman) and ditsy ingénue Brooke (Sarah Kmiecik). The ensemble also includes featured actress Belinda Blair (Meg Elliott), who's always ready to improvise her way out of faltering scenes; featured actor Frederick Fellowes (Rian Jairell), who's prone to nosebleeds and spends much of his time with his pants around his ankles; and oft-inebriated character actor Selsdon (Tom Ochocinski). Behind the scenes are overworked stage manager Tim (Evan Cullinan) and his put-upon assistant Poppy (Kelsey Tuma).
Act I takes place the day before "Nothing On" opens, as the cast stumbles through a final rehearsal during which they struggle with fumbled lines, missed cues and stuck doors. The first act hints at romantic relationships that become tangled in the riotous Act II. Replete with misunderstandings, the act unfolds backstage, one month into the company's tour. By Act III, the confusion with which "Nothing On" began has evolved into outright pandemonium with actors slipping on sardines and tumbling down stairs.
I've always thought one can determine the quality of a "Noises Off" revival by the success of the slapstick that comprise the hugely entertaining second act. If while trying to catch all those bits of overlapping business, you find yourself unable to keep up with them, chances are you're watching a first-rate revival.
You can catch one such revival through March 14 at the Metropolis.
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Location: Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, 111 W. Campbell St., Arlington Heights, (847) 577-2121 or metropolisarts.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday; through March 14
Running time: About 2 hours 30 minutes, including intermission
Parking: Nearby garage and street parking
Rating: For older teens and adults, includes strong language and mature themes