“Noises Off,” Michael Frayn’s classic stage comedy, has a premise that sounds simple but is extremely difficult to pull off. We watch six actors as they struggle to complete the rehearsal of a bawdy farce called “Nothing On.” Lloyd, the play’s director (who acknowledges that his offstage direction is akin to “the voice of God”) has had it up to here with his lovable but visibly weary troupe. The play isn’t coming together and off-stage tiffs and romances are hurting the performances. During the second act of “Noises Off,” we see “Nothing On” from a different perspective: while it’s on the road and playing before an audience, but from backstage. We, the actual audience, see the show being performed from behind the scenes, with the stage literally turned around, to witness the shenanigans going on. The final sequence takes us back to the front of the stage, where we witness another performance of “Nothing On,” in which everything that can go wrong does, in gloriously disastrous ways.
This Maui Onstage production is at the Historical Iao Theater, which was the last place I saw this play in the mid-90’s, when it was directed by the late, great Ed Fields. This is one of those tricky but ageless comedies that must be seen in a theater, where the laughter begins in act one and, by act two, completely fills the playhouse.
Directed with clarity and imagination by Lisa Teichner, who coaches great work from her actors and stages the tricky choreography with ease. No doubt, she and Andrea Finkelstein, her stage manager, had a huge task between them and pulled off a show that, while beloved, is a formidable task. Dane Leeman’s extraordinary set is beautiful and vivid in act one and a believable facsimile as the backstage for the second act.
Act one is charming, in which the characters, the roles they’re playing and the play itself are established. Act two is simply dazzling, whereupon backstage rivalries, bitterness, juvenile behavior and physical comeuppance takes a toll on the actors. The beautifully staged chaos that takes place is so wild, fast and dispersed among the cast, I’d have to see it again to spot all the gags. Then there’s the final sequence, in which the actors are literally at one another’s throats, their play is a disaster and nothing goes right. At this point, “Noises Off” becomes an exercise in sustained hilarity. There’s funny and then there’s catch-your-breath-from-laughing-so-hard.
Playing Lloyd, Dale Button is wonderful- few actors are funnier at doing a slow burn than he is. His second act outrage and (without giving away the joke) moment of agony are a riot. Ashlyn-Jade Aniban plays Brooke, a barely dressed ingénue. Yes, she’s in her underwear for most of the show but the bigger news is that she hones in on a comic quality that reminded me of Betty Boop. She embodies an adorably daft character. The dumber Brooke comes across, the funnier Aniban’s performance gets.
Lee Garrow was a standout in “Elf The Musical” and shines brightly here as well, playing Selsdon, yet another lovably eccentric character. Beth Garrow makes Dotty recognizable and not a caricature; in some ways Dotty is the central figure in the play-within-the-play, until she becomes immersed in the madness around her. Watching her tearful demeanor change into gleeful malice in the second act is a joyful thing.
Likewise, Jeanette Rucci makes Poppy (the play’s technical director) a lived-in and touching figure. I’ve known women like this, who endure much, stay in the background and are the reason why theater can go smoothly. The moment Rucci steps on stage, her appearance, demeanor and long suffering approach to the character is spot-on.
Anthony James Rummel’s increasingly manic performance of Garry, an actor with an alarmingly limited vocabulary, rises to delectable levels. Watching Rummel do a silent sulk in another hysterical sight.
Nichole Tokunaga is a stitch as Belinda; she has this manic run that is so funny to witness. Of all the actors who resort to heightened pantomime in the second act, her delightfully crazy performance captured my attention the most.
Daniel Vicars, like many of his co-stars, is deliciously good at making stupidity appear adorable. He has too many choice moments to single out, though I’ll mention his absurd series of entrances in the final scene, one of many moments where I was slapping my knee from laughing so hard. Kalani Whitford has a number of scenes where he must convey the fear of being alone on stage, minus cooperative co-stars and struggle through his stage fright and somehow maintain order. Whitford is sublimely goofy.
The actors are terrific and so is this production. The sole drawback is a brief use of strobe lighting that doesn’t seem necessary and momentarily halts the fast pace. Otherwise, this is an un-missable night of theater. Hearty laughter is all but guaranteed.
The final sequence is so relentlessly funny, the gentle, agreeably silly build-up of act one and impressive timing of the act two opener merges into a perfect storm of comedic lunacy. From the moment the technical problems of “Nothing On” are introduced, to the way Whitford’s good natured Tim keeps trying to salvage the play, I was laughing my ass off.
The Maui Onstage production of Noises Off plays the Historic Iao Theater from Sept 25th-Oct 11th. Tickets are available online at www.mauionstage.com or by calling 808.242.6969.