Farce time, hold the sardines

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday April 5, 2017
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In another city far, far away, and in the previous millennium, a local theater company was presenting Noises Off. Because much of the play's humor comes from the audience getting to see the backstage chaos that the fictional audience at a fictional play doesn't get to see during a fictional performance, it seemed like a good story idea for a newspaper writer to actually sit backstage throughout an actual performance of Michael Frayn's comedy of theatrical calamity. It was not a good story idea. One might as well as have been sitting backstage at A Long Day's Journey Into Night waiting for the hijinks to begin.

Fictional chaos requires professional focus, and the best place to receive it �" reductio ad absurdum �" is with the actual audience at which that focus is aimed. That is currently available at San Francisco Playhouse, where the ingenuity of Frayn's script and the cast's seemingly inexhaustible ability to communicate its physical demands are impressively realized in director Susi Damilano's production. Nevertheless, the production and the performances are missing some of the needed finesse to elicit more of the available laughs and reveal less of the sporadic weaknesses in Frayn's script.

Noises Off is about a second-tier theatrical troupe touring the English provinces with a play titled Nothing On. The play-within-a-play is a takeoff on the kind of sex farces that were still a West End staple when Noises Off debuted in London in 1982, plays with titles like Run for Your Wife and No Sex Please, We're British, in which characters are constantly being thwarted in their attempts to have illicit sex. And so it is with Nothing On, a claptrap vehicle for an aging TV personality playing a blowsy housekeeper at a supposedly vacant cottage where two couples arrive for afternoon trysts.

All we ever see is the first act of Nothing On, repeated three times from various vantages. There's the sloppy final rehearsal; there's the play seen from backstage midway through the tour as rivalries, romances, and jealousies rage while the show must �" in at least some fashion �" go on; and there's the last stop on the tour, where the cast has pretty much given up on presenting a coherent show.

Nothing On is populated with stock characters, and Frayn has offered his own set of theatrical types for Noises Off. Because they are types and not often filled with surprises, the actors must bring robust comedic skills into play. No one is really off the mark in the SF Playhouse production, but that extra comic glint can be elusive. Where it can be best found in this production is in the most stereotypical role in both Nothing On and Noises Off: the dumb sexy blonde.

Monique Hafen generates the production's biggest laughs playing Brooke Ashton, an actress who was obviously not hired for her skills as a thespian. That wouldn't be too much of a problem because all her character has to do is run around looking sexy in a negligee and react in surprise at key moments. But when things begin to go awry during a performance of Nothing On, and the rest of the cast tries to improvise around the problems, Brooke can only respond with how she was programmed. Perhaps the funniest moment is simply the line, "Bags! Bags! Bags!" that Hafen, as Brooke, exclaims with unshakeable commitment even though the props in question have failed to appear.

Kimberly Richards has a solid handle on Dotty Otley, the faltering, moody, but still libidinous star of Nothing On, and there is agreeable work from Patrick Russell (who does the best pratfall), Nanci Zoppi, Craig Marker, and Richard Louis James as fellow actors in the beleaguered troupe. Greg Ayers gets some good laughs as the clueless stage manager, but Monica Ho skips over the nuances that would get more humor from the frantic assistant stage manager. As the exasperated director of Nothing On, Johnny Moreno brings a plummy accent, lots of froth, and only vague hints of a comedic edge.

Frayn has tinkered with the script since its original London and New York production of the 1980s, the most beneficial change being the elimination of a second intermission between the second and third acts. Improvements in stage technology have facilitated that since the set has to do a 180-degrees revolve between each act, and George Maxwell's scenic design makes good use of the turntable built into SF Playhouse's stage. Now the high energy of the second act doesn't have a chance to dissipate during a second interval, and the traditionally anti-climactic third act can now roll solidly to the final curtain. At which point, you'll probably be grateful not to hear the word "sardines" at least for a while.


Noises Off will run at the San Francisco Playhouse through May 13. Tickets are $20-$125. Call (415) 677-9596 or go to sfplayhouse.org.