Theater Review: Two River’s ‘Noises Off’

February 1, 2019
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Jason O’Connell (Frederick Fellowes), Ellen Harvey (Dotty Otley), Adrianna Mitchell (Brooke Ashton), Michael Crane (Garry Lejeune) and Kathleen Choe (Belinda Blair) star in “Noises Off” at Two River Theater. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen

If you’ve ever worked in the theater at any level you know that sometimes what’s happening backstage is far more entertaining than what’s happening onstage.

English playwright Michael Frayn noticed that one night while watching from the wings during a play he’d written and turned his observation into what some consider to be one of the funniest, nay, the funniest play ever written.

The Two River Theater Company’s current production of Frayn’s 1982 farce “Noises Off” reinforces that opinion.

From the moment you walk into the theater, scenic designer Charlie Corcoran’s two-story set screams farce. It features four doors downstairs and another three doors upstairs that slam throughout the performance, except, of course, when they get stuck.

The exaggerated plot revolves around an English theatrical touring production of a not-so-great play with not-so-great actors, scheduled to open in less that 24 hours.

“Nothing On,” the play-within-a-play, includes attempted sex, a scantily clad female in a red nighty, a male whose pants fall down, numerous plates of sardines that are never eaten, mistaken identity, secrets and misunderstood intentions.

It’s like nine Lucille Ball characters have been let loose all at once.

The first act takes place during the tech rehearsal where nothing goes right. The second act takes place a month later and is a repeat of the first act seen from backstage as the actors’ love lives and jealousies cause chaos. The third act – yes, another repeat of the first, nearly two months later – is, more or less, Armageddon.

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The cast, under the direction of Sarna Lapine (whose credits include the 2017 Broadway revival of “Sunday in the Park with George” with Jake Gyllenhaal) are phenomenal.

Jason O’Connell (Frederick Fellowes) and Gopal Divan (Lloyd Dallas) in foreground, with Ellen Harvey (Dotty Otley) in background. Upper level: Adrianna Mitchell (Brooke Ashton), Michael Crane (Garry Lejeune) and Kathleen Choe (Belinda Blair).
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

The superb cast includes Gopal Divan as sarcastic director Lloyd Dallas; Ellen Harvey as Dotty Otley, the star of the show and an investor; Michael Crane as Garry Lejeune, a decent actor who has trouble ex- pressing himself without a script; Adrianna Mitchell as Brooke Ashton, whose character lives in her own world but carries on; Jason O’Connell as Frederick Fellowes, prone to nosebleeds and not that bright; Kathleen Choe as Belinda Blair, the company’s gossip and mother hen; Philip Goodwin as Selsdon Mowbray, an aging actor with a drinking problem; Kimiye Corwin as put-upon assistant stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor who find herself well, I won’t give that away; and Phillip Taratula as Tim Allgood, the stage manager who needs to schedule a nervous breakdown.

Costume designer Valérie Thérèse Bart, lighting designer Ken Billington, sound designer Karin Graybash, and wigs designer Dave Bova all did themselves proud.

Besides winning Tony and Olivier theater awards galore for Best Comedy and Best Play, Frayn’s novels have won numerous awards and his comic newspaper essays are much admired. He’s also written a book about philosophy and is considered to be Britain’s finest translator of Anton Chekhov work.

His 1988 drama “Copenhagan,” based on an event that happened in that city in 1941, a meeting between the physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, that may or may not have been about building or not building the atomic bomb, remains one of the best plays I’ve ever seen.

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And yet, the same playwright can write a farce so funny it almost makes you pee in your pants.

P.S. The title is a theatrical stage direction indicating sounds coming from off-stage. Something that happens throughout the play.

Tickets $40 to $70, discounts available; $20 tickets for people 29 and younger; additional $20 for all may be partial view. Available at tworivertheater.org or 732- 345-1400.

Journalist Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen’s theater news and reviews can be found on theatercues.com.

This article was first published in the Feb.7-14, 2019 print edition of The Two River Times.

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