Michael Frayn's extraordinarily popular farce Noises Offis a lot of things, as advertisements pumping any production like to point out. It's "uproarious," "sidesplitting," "hilarious."
You can add a new word to the publicity campaign, based on the International City Theatre's ongoing production at its new digs in the Long Beach Convention Center: "tedious." And who could have thought a play as fast and funny as this one would merit that distinction, especially with the highly talented cast assembled here?
Though deliriously brain-dead, Noises Offis a masterfully put-together farce, so audience-friendly that it's like clubbing fish in a bathtub with a wooden oar. So why does this production feel slow, humorless and fat? Credit Sashin Deshai's leaden direction. There's absolutely no danger in this toothless production. And that's what great farce is all about—think Marx Brothers.
Theater is about heightened stakes, impending catastrophe, individuals and groups perched on the edge of great danger —and this play, when done right, makes those sensations tangible. It's got to feel as if everything in this company's world is riding on the success of the play-within-the-play. Rarely does this production succeed.
In the first act, a small company of professional actors is trying frantically to pull off just one dress rehearsal of Robin Housemonger's new play, Nothing On—before the toxic blend of personalities completely poisons the company. But you never get a sense from this production that the theater company is all that worried about its own obvious demise. Instead of frazzled, harried and desperate, the actors and crew seem bored or slightly annoyed.
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The danger is also mostly nonexistent in the play's second act, one of the finest pantomimes ever. The stage combat is clumsy and the physical bits are occasionally inspired but mostly perfunctory.
There are a few stellar performances. Jodi Carlisle brings immense spirit to her role as slowly aging theatrical impresario Dotty Otley; Ron Campbell's effete leading man, Frederick, is interestingly complex; and Matt Walker is, once again, a paragon of physical comedy.
But, collectively, the actors seldom seem to work together. And the responsibility for that lies with the director, as do the play's other faults. This production—from the choice to use stiff British accents throughout (the actors often sound as if they're mumbling) to the distinct lack of overt sexuality and physical danger—smacks of a misguided director approaching Noises Off as a sophisticated, genteel boulevard farce designed for the well-heeled, as opposed to what it truly is: a great exercise in old-fashioned, butt-kicking, crotch-grabbing comedy.
Noises Off at the International City Theatre at the Long Beach Convention Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 436-4610. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through March 5. $25-$30; students get $3 off.