If I live in New York City and I am reviewing plays, I will not pass up an opportunity to see a production of Noises Off, my favorite comedy of all-time. Michael Frayn’s play-within-a-play formula offers incredible payoffs for its audience, especially during Act Two’s behind-the-scenes bedlam. It also provides incredible challenges for its director, performers and most of all set designer, who must construct a multi-level creation of at least four doors and one staircase, and then reverse it all to reveal a backstage area. What an ambitious selection for Narrows Community Theatre, one that landed with mixed results during Sunday’s matinee.
In Noises Off, a group of actors -- typically in London, but changed to New York here -- is putting on a comedy called Nothing On. Act One shows us the final dress rehearsal, where tempers flair and cues are missed, to excess. Act Two takes us backstage during a performance, where the behind-the-scenes drama grows more important to the cast than the show itself. Finally, Act Three is the closing of Nothing On, where all cohesion goes out the door (at one point, two actors and the director go on stage as the same exact character).
A community theatre audience out in Bay Ride, Brooklyn consists mostly of a much, much older crowd. In this sense, Noises Off is the toughest sell ever for NCT's typical demographic. It all started with looks of confusion around the room. But midway, the audience’s audible questions to their neighbors (“What’s going on?”/ “Is this the play or the play?”/ “Why is she doing that to him?” / "This is so weird") became more entertaining than what was occurring onstage.
The other community theatre aspects of the show were hard to ignore: certain actors in their own worlds, way overdoing it (Rob Aloi as the overstressed Tim has energy galore, but is not acting with anyone)... the stagehands moving from the house to backstage and back again, right in front of us. These problems are easily fixable in the future. NCT evidently has somewhat of a budget as the set was surprisingly effective and detailed (Michael Vitucci, I can only imagine the work that went into constructing that). But it’s clear that because the show is so complicated, director Christian Fleming focused more on pacing and physicality -- both successful elements here -- over developing more specific characters who have chemistry and relationships with one another, which is a shame.
Having said that, a good actor is a good actor and knows how to work that stage at all times. Sara Florence Fellini as Belinda Blair --the actress who plays-it-cool-until-she-loses-it and utilizes a broom as a scene partner – truly impresses with a sharp, professional, hilarious performance from start to finish. The bottom line: she made me feel comfortable as an audience member. Her discoveries and realizations are fresh and in the moment -- so important for a farce.
Emma Peele employs astounding diction and the best English accent of the day as dumb blonde Brooke (although her Brooke was more mad than dumb, and not blonde). David Andrew Laws offers a fittingly quirky interpretation of Frederick, and the most nuanced performance. Robert Kiernan knows that sometimes simpler is better. He shines as his Sheldon keepsssss onnn goinggg even though the director has called for a stop moments ago.
A big congratulations to 23-year-old Christian Fleming, recipient of the Wisconsin State Theatre Festival’s Best Director Award, for audaciously tackling this farce with NCT. While certain bits that I typically love were missed or not highlighted clearly (like Gary dumping sardines on Dotty, a moment which seemed to barely happen in the background when it could have provided showstopping hilarity), the action kept moving and the set didn’t crumble… two major feats while presenting Noises Off.
Performances Feb 22-24. http://www.nctheaterny.com/tickets.php