"Our tour is on its very last legs," says a mortified actor, oddly dressed in a burglar costume and dinner jacket, as he dodges the interruptions of backstage spats. He notices a whiskey bottle lodged in the cushion of a nearby chair, and as he inches toward it, he bids the audience: "Ladies and gentlemen, will you please sit back and enjoy the remains of the evening."
Under the direction of its founder Vincent M. Lancisi, Everyman Theatre closes its latest season with Michael Frayn's recursive "Noises Off" (1982), a bedroom farce about a bedroom farce. We see act one of play-within-a-play "Nothing On" at three points in its production, from time-crunched rehearsal to late-season performance. Everyman's Resident Company fares far better than their character counterparts, whose behind-the-scenes skirmishes eventually drive the show off its rails into onstage disaster.
It's fitting that "Nothing On" never progresses beyond its first act, its destruction ensured by a troupe too preoccupied with indulging tempers and settling romantic scores to commit their stage directions to memory. Think "Groundhog Day" but without the learning curve, as if Phil Connors resigned himself to stepping in the same roadside puddle each loop-day.
The troupe "Noises Off" depicts stumbles through their roles on a set staged as a woodsy 16th-century country home, with more doors than wallspace. The cast is a melange of big personalities and acting tropes. Frederick Fellowes (played by Bruce Randolph Nelson) and Belinda Blair (Beth Hylton) play the couple that owns the estate, the former bent on justifying his lines with outlandish backstory, and the latter a keen gossip and matron most invested in keeping it all together.
Brooke Ashton is a disinterested, sexy starlet (Emily Kester), so incompetent that she mouths along to her costar's lines in a half-hearted attempt at keeping pace. Beside her is the chiseled-jawed Garry Lejeune (Danny Gavigan), who's only good with words when they're written for him. If the Everyman Resident Company was a band of marathon runners, Gavigan leads the pack. He shines in the second act, where he successfully balances petulant man-child tantrums backstage with sleazy casanova seductions onstage.
Dotty Otley (Deborah Hazlett) is as well-known an actor as she is forgetful, and is in seemingly continuous transition between grabbing and placing prop plates of sardines. Her romance-turned-feud with Garry is arguably the origin of all bad fortune for the troupe, their quarrels eventually devolving to tripping legs and throwing axes. Coming in dead last is the senile alcoholic Selsdon Mowbray (Wil Love), who is so ill-timed that his role as house burglar is handed off to understudies.
The cast spends plenty of time bemoaning the many minutiae requisite to their performance, each assigned bags, boxes, and the like to carry to and fro. Their director, Lloyd Dallas (Carl Schurr) is no help, either evading his lovelorn assistant Poppy Norton-Taylor (Megan Anderson) or demanding 11th-hour favors from the exhausted stage manager Tim Allgood (Eric Berryman).
It's ironic that a play about a sloppy, conflict-ridden theater troupe is itself wound so carefully taught with potential energy, every fumbled prop and missed line a manicured feat of the Everyman cast. While "Nothing On" is buoyed with mistakes until in literal collapse, its mother play requires technical perfectionism, a Rube Goldberg machine of escalating parlays and coordinated mishaps.
Straightforward and satisfying, farce is unapologetic in its single-minded pursuit of laughter. Derived from the french word farcir, meaning "to stuff," the genre's more-is-more approach maximizes its laughs-per-minute ratio, and is faithful to the expedience of physical comedy. Yet as overblown and off-the-cuff as its hijinks may seem, farce is pragmatic in practice, its breakneck pace requiring a dedication from its actors to the athletics of stagecraft. Rhetorical jokes and contemplative monologues are largely forgone in favor of speed, dexterity, and precision.
"Noises Off" is a modern touchstone of the genre, a series of gymnastic stunts in the name of slapdash comedy. That's the paradox of farce; the more scrupulous its execution, the more haphazard it appears.
After laying a groundwork of judiciously placed cues, we're let in on the joke. Frayn wrote "Noises Off" after admiring the handiwork of his previous farcical mini-play from backstage. The set, of impressive design by Daniel Ettinger, is spun on its axis during the first intermission so that we share his vantage of inspiration, the actors then facing a fictional audience upstage. Everyman's technical crew deftly breaks and reconstructs it in specific sequence, building a ring of sorts for impending chaos.
We're treated to the set's innards with the mischievousness of a child disassembling the old tube television in their basement, its parts fascinating and foreign. While actors careen through the playground of a near-dozen doors, the audience is free to admire its exposed underbelly, a reveal that at once spoils and compels.
For its final act, "Noises Off" reverts back to its conventional staging and savors its hard-won implosion, a spectacular pileup so beyond salvaging that its actors, breathless and half-clothed, wholly abandon script. Dumbfounded, they look onward in abject terror. Failure, at the very least, is its own conclusion.
"Noises Off" runs through June 18 at the Everyman Theatre. For more information, visit everymantheatre.org.