Saturday, October 11, 2008

Noises Off, The Cleveland Play House

(The cactus attack. From left: Christopher Kelly, Timothy Gregory and Linda Kimbrough)

At first glance, it would seem that a pants-dropping sex farce, such as Noises Off by Michael Frayn, would be a lark to stage. The actors just have to run around dropping trou and doing silly things and people will laugh, right? Well, yes, but they may not laugh as loudly and helplessly as they might.

In fact, farce is one of the most demanding theatrical forms to master, requiring actors who have the stamina and agility of athletes. This is necessary so they can execute the many and varied pratfalls, near misses and door-slamming chases that are required. And while the Cleveland Play House cast exerts all the effort one could expect, a lack of sharp characterization and pinpoint timing turns what should be a non-stop laugh-fest into just a mildly amusing diversion.

In this play-within-a-play, an English touring theatrical company is rehearsing a doleful sex romp called Nothing On, with a troupe of actors beset by serious memorization problems, convoluted romantic entanglements, alcoholism and the occasional nosebleed.

Since there is double the exposition to accomplish, the first act is a real challenge for the players and director David H. Bell. And they only partly succeed. One difficulty is that the play being rehearsed, dreadful though it is, must be allowed to proceed so that the audience can recall that plot line in the second and third acts. Thus, it is up to the actors to carry the comedy with their individual (and mostly dual) characterizations before the real fireworks are ignited.

After the rather desultory first act, things pick up when the set is turned around and we see the same section of Nothing On during a “real” performance, from a backstage perspective. The timing of much of the slapstick--involving misdirected flowers, booze and a fire axe-- feels a bit too measured and choreographed (to be great, slapstick has to feel exuberantly and even riskily spontaneous). But the cast performs on James Leonard Joy’s impressively massive set with unstinting energy.

And the third act, which presents the final touring performance of Nothing On from the audience point of view, sees the fictitious actors collapse into a stew of their own personal peccadillos.

The most important character in Frayn’s very funny script is Dotty Otley, an aging actress who plays the housekeeper Mrs. Clackett. This was the Carol Burnett role in the Americanized movie version and it demands a refined level of talent since Otley, although forgetful and a bit of a lush, is also supposed to be somewhat enticing sexually (she is having affairs with two of the younger actors, Garry and Frederick).

That’s a tricky package and Linda Kimbrough only masters part of it. As Mrs. Clackett, she gets her share of laughs padding around the large set in search of plates of sardines, a snack that is continually being misplaced. But she lacks the regal mien of Dotty, a fading actress who still has enough game to play grab-ass with younger studs. As a result, Garry’s jealous passion in act two simply doesn’t track.

As the almost equally memory-challenged Garry, Christopher Kelly has am adorably dense manner that encourages others to finish his sentences for him. And Donald Carrier plays nervous and nosebleed-y Frederick with a style vaguely reminiscent of Charles Nelson Reilly (that’s a good thing).

Even though Summer Naomi Smart as Brooke has a figure (clad in only her underwear) that would slow Carnegie traffic to a crawl, she doesn’t have enough fun with her ditzy character. The same is true with Timothy Gregory, who plays director Lloyd with a vague sense of exasperation rather than a more intense, and more comical, approach. In addition, his romantic attraction to Brooke seems rote rather than randy. Frank Kopyc gives soused actor Selsdon a dash of inebriated nobility, even when he reliably misses his cues to come on as the burglar.

It all amounts to an evening of frequent chuckles, but not the rib-snapping, screaming guffaws that this play can generate when performed to farcical perfection.

Noises Off
Through October 26 at the
Cleveland Play House,
8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000

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