Noises Off

“Noises Off” is a play about performing a play, a farce that takes place behind the scenes at a farce, and a show in which the show-within-a-show is almost as good as the show itself.

With all that confusion, not to mention the powerful comedic timing required, Michael Frayn’s play is easy to screw up. Fortunately, the Little London Dinner Theater has not screwed it up, but has assembled a production that is impressive and marvelously funny.

The first act comprises a last-minute rehearsal of a farce called “Nothing On.” It’s a fairly standard British farce, full of slamming doors, mistaken identities and men whose pants fall down. The cast we’re watching, though, is painfully unprepared for opening night. Dotty (Lesli Manning), who’s playing the maid in the show, can’t remember her lines to save her life; plus, she’s having an affair with Garry (Brett Merritt), despite being twice his age (and despite Garry’s being just a, you know, who can’t complete a coherent, you know). Brooke (Cassandra Fulton), in the role of the ingenue, keeps losing her contact lens and is mentally out to lunch. Frederick’s (Matt Spencer) wife just left him. Belinda (Laura Hoppe) is more interested in intra-cast gossip, of which there is plenty. And Selsdon (Gentry Thompson) has been acting for 60 years and drinks way too much.

On top of all that, the harried director, Lloyd (Nathan Mitchell), is trying to maintain relationships with both Brooke and his assistant stage manager, Poppy (Sarah Broberg), and poor Tim (Chad Fulton), the stage manager, hasn’t slept in two days.

So we see “Nothing On,” with a lot of interruptions and false starts, and get to know both the play and the actors in it. Act 2 takes us backstage at the play several weeks into the run. Dotty and Garry have had a fight, Lloyd is trying to kiss up to Brooke, and everyone is more intent on resolving personal differences than going out there and doing a show.

Act 3 is from the audience’s perspective again, this time a few more weeks down the road, at a point when Dotty has to be forced onstage and no one gives a damn what happens anymore. Belinda desperately improvises scenes, Garry makes flustered attempts at ad-libbing, and Brooke stubbornly says only the lines she memorized, no matter what.

This is a brilliant play, and the current production very nearly does it justice. Directed by Paul “Wally” Walstad, Act 2 has accurately been called a comedic ballet, and it’s played with jaw-dropping artistry here. The cast works as an ensemble, all cogs in a machine that move at the right moment and swing axes at each other just when it’s funniest.

I hate to single out Brett Merritt twice in a row, but just as he stole Little London’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” last month, he proves himself well-suited to farce this time, too. With an inflection here or an extra hop there, he makes funny lines funnier, and his face-first pratfall in Act 3 is outstanding.

That’s not to diminish the rest of the cast’s achievements, however. Everyone performs with gusto and avoids the deathtrap of seeming to “try” to be funny.

I have issues with Gentry Thompson’s hair, which is so obviously the haircut of a Backstreet Boy and not a 70-year-old actor. And the play’s setting has been moved to the United States, which is fine, but the lines remain distinctly British (for example, Lloyd’s statement that he’ll be sitting in the audience with “a bag of toffies”). Minor quibbles, sure; you can probably get over them. If you don’t mind laughing, it’s a show not to be missed.

I auditioned for this show on a whim, hoping the rehearsal schedule would work out so I could be involved. It didn't, and I wasn't in the show, and that was probably better for everyone.