Everything On

Act Inc. presents the mother of all backstage theater comedies

Noises Off

The Fontbonne University Fine Arts Center Theatre, (6800 Wydown Boulevard, Clayton)

Through October 29. Tickets are $18 ($15 for students and seniors). Call 314-725-9108 or visit www.actinc.biz.

Perhaps there is something funny going on," one of the harried characters suggests in Nothing On, the imaginary British sex farce that is dismantled with a wrecking ball in Michael Frayn's chaotic Noises Off. But there's no "perhaps" about it. This mother of all backstage theater comedies serves up an evening of seemingly limitless laughs.

The premise is perversely simple. We witness the same inane sex farce being performed three times: first in rehearsal, then during two stops on its ill-fated provincial tour. Even at the outset, everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Doors don't open, others don't close. Plates of sardines appear and disappear with maddening regularity. "That's what it's all about," the play's put-upon director explains to his hapless actors, "doors and sardines." Then things go from wrong to nightmarish. As backstage affairs and jealousies consume the cast, their deteriorating relations wreak havoc on the insipid Nothing On. By evening's end we are willing witnesses to the performance from Hell, and loving every minute.

Neil Simon, who knows a little something about comedy, once wrote that with farce "enough is never enough. At the final curtain, the audience must be as spent as the actors." By the time Noises Off limps to its surreal, nose-bleeding, trouser-dropping, skirt-stripping conclusion, chances are that you too will be crying out "Enough!" even as you strive to catch your breath.

In 1998, fifteen years after the show debuted on Broadway, former New York Times theater critic Frank Rich wrote, "Noises Off was, is, perhaps always will be the funniest play written in my lifetime." His lifetime is our lifetime, and I see no reason to qualify or quantify that opinion. But that's the play. What about Act Inc.'s progressive supper of a production, which cleverly moves the audience from front-of-stage to backstage with each ensuing act? It's hard to imagine how this staging could be bettered. We tend to apply the phrase "ensemble acting" to serious drama. But it's a show like this, in which every member of the cast literally has to breathe in sync with every other actor if the momentum is to be sustained, where a sense of ensemble is mandatory.

Yet within the superstructure of the ensemble, each actor shines individually. Charlie Barron brings his unique flair for smooth precision to the male juvenile who's having a secret affair with the leading lady. Kevin Beyer's old souse is a delightful send-up of ham actors everywhere. (Did I sense a touch of Christopher Plummer in his intonations?) Sarah Cannon is the befuddled stage manager, (not all that) innocently charming in jeans that almost swallow her up. Teresa Doggett's has-been and never-was leading lady takes care to not become such a prima donna that we lose empathy for her. As the vapid, scantily clad ingénue, Rory Lipede spends much of the evening strutting about in little more than high heels that seem to be nearly half her height. Imagine Botticelli's Venus with loose contact lenses, and you have a sense of Lipede's allure.

Initially we welcome the rehearsal intrusions by Bill Lynch's director, for he is the only sane person in the theater. Not surprisingly, by evening's end we come to realize that Lynch personifies the maxim that if he is sane, the lunatics are running the asylum. As the absentee landlords of the house in which Nothing On plays out, Anthony Mullin and Kelley Ryan offer a dual portrait in façade. He is a study in frailty; she is the ultimate poseur — at least until a sardine slides down her cleavage. Paul Pagano's assistant stage manager is so real, at first you think maybe he has stumbled onto the stage by accident.

This is a rare example of mass confusion under total control, for which enormous credit must go to director (and fellow Riverfront Times theater critic) Deanna Jent. Without having attended rehearsals, it's hard to know how she did what she did. But one thing is certain: There are often as many as nine actors onstage, yet the viewer's eye is always directed to the right place. That alone is a major feat. In rendering this Titanic of stage catastrophes, Jent and company have provided audiences with a night to remember.

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