‘Noises Off’ at the Walnut, and the notion of stylish slapstick

The cast of Walnut Street Theatre's production of

The cast of Walnut Street Theatre's production of "Noises Off." (Photo courtesy of Mark Garvin)

Veteran Philly actors — many of them Walnut Street Theatre regulars — are at their comedic best in “Noises Off,” Michael Frayn’s frothy farce about an ill-prepared acting troupe performing an awful play amid wild complications.

The Walnut’s cast is so strong, the actors almost overcome the repetitious tedium of the first-act setup of this play within a play. (Almost, not quite, but this is the closest I’ve seen a cast come to making Act One percolate.) Act One is when the characters perform their dress rehearsal for a play called “Nothing On,” a witless ditty about a real estate agent who shows a young lady around a big old-money house, but not because he wants her to rent the place. The two have come for some comfortable whoopee in an upstairs bedroom, only to find the housekeeper present and the owners popping in for an unexpected visit.

By the time the dress rehearsal’s finished, along with the first act of “Noises Off,” we’ve met the entire troupe, including the director (Greg Wood), involved offstage with the shapely young actress (Alanna J. Smith) who believes acting is an extreme form of posing. He also makes the fragile stage manager (Lauren Sowa) swoon.

The actor playing the real estate agent (Ben Dibble) is dallying, possibly, with the woman playing the housekeeper (Mary Martello). We also come to know the cast gossip (Susan Riley Stevens) and the crestfallen man playing her husband (Leonard C. Haas). There’s a lovable old drunk who plays a house-robber (John P. Connolly) and a backstage gofer (Daniel Frederick).

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I won’t lay out the plot’s progression, which would be like trying to explain many jokes all at once. Let’s just say, you had to be there. Frayn is clever in writing a nonsense farce of a playlet, then laying another farce about the actors themselves on top of it. We see or hear the pointless play about shenanigans in the old house three times during “Noises Off,” whose title is theater jargon for off-stage noise that a script calls for.  The first time is the rehearsal, the second time is a backstage view of a performance (Rob Koharchick’s sets on a turntable are meticulously designed) and the third is again from the audience perspective at the final performance of a tour.

“Noises Off” opened in Britain in 1982 and hit Broadway the next year. The show has been so widely produced, it’s now an old chestnut. With its falling pants, constant door slamming, slapstick and running joke about sardines, it’s as much a burlesque as it is a farce.

It turns up the silly meter as it moves forward and the slapstick becomes more and more stylish – yes, stylish slapstick seems like an impossible oxymoron, but if you see the show you’ll know what I mean. The timing becomes more complex, the shtick becomes harder to pull off, and this cast under Frank Anzalone’s slick direction handily triggers the laughs.

You may know of a current Broadway show called “The Play That Goes Wrong” which, like “Noises Off” is a British import that aims for the same effects. It’s even more physically demanding, but doesn’t come close to being as good a play. Its main goal is to show a play that literally falls apart, sets and all. “Noises Off” may be fluff, but it’s built with a better engine: It doesn’t go wrong because of coincidental accidents or from flim-flam stage design. Its mishaps arise because distinct, carefully built characters sabotage themselves or have snowballing reasons to be at each other’s throats. In the Walnut production, the actors who play them go for each other’s jugulars, and tickle you at the same time.

“Noises Off” runs through April 29 at Walnut Street Theatre, on Walnut Street between Eighth and Ninth Streets. 215-574-3550 or walnutstreettheatre.org.

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