Dallas — Who hasn’t had a carefully planned party or meeting or a wedding or (fill in the blank) go straight to hell at an accelerating rate while you stand there talking and smiling—numbly maintaining your role as host, teacher, bride or president while the dream scene you imagined disintegrates into a waking nightmare? Hey, is that a glimpse of the chaotic abyss lurking just below our flimsy little human constructs, or what? So how’s this funny? When it happens to somebody else, of course. That’s why we love farce.
For a rollicking existential belly-laugh, don’t miss Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, the British playwright’s brilliant 1982 farce, brought to riotous life in a perfectly timed, slam-bang production directed by Robin Armstrong at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas. We actually get two shows, one tucked tightly inside the other, so we’re laughing twice as much. In the course of three acts we see a troupe of actors in a ridiculous farce called Nothing On, from the frantic final rehearsal, to a mid-tour performance falling apart at the seams, when Rodney Dobbs’ superb double-staircase, multi-door set flips and we see the actors’ ferociously funny backstage antics. In a wildly physical third act, the company and the production collapse, as such a show must beneath the weight of a million mishaps, into utter shreds at the final performance—and the audience is jackknifed with laughter.
The show has a hilarious heap of all the stuff we want in farce, from slamming doors and tied shoelaces to a slippery plate of sardines—and a restless telephone with a writhing snake of a coiled chord poised to entangle any passing actor. You name it, that prop is going to appear and create a terrible trip-up, a fury of flustered confusion, and waves of laughter from the double-whammy of witty dialogue and no-holds-barred slapstick.
All the characters of theater and farce are here in ripe profusion, expertly cast and costumed by Armstrong, and clicking together like a Swiss watch—or maybe a time bomb set to explode in two hours, in which the correctly colored wire is pulled with a second to spare. An aging but still lusty actress who can’t get her lines and props in sinc (a slyly vengeful Lisa Fairchild) plays the housekeeper in the touring show. This dotty diva is having an affair with an ambitious young actor (a slickly handsome and astonishingly athletic Michael McGough) who suspects she’s betraying him because he keeps seeing her offstage in, well, suspicious circumstances with other actors. Got that? Then there is the fragile older actor whose nose bleeds at the very mention of violence, constantly seeking deeper motives for every line he speaks (a fleshy David H. M. Lambert in slope-shouldered, slow-moving mode). Beside him is the gossipy, constantly conciliatory actress (a nervously smiling and tensely alert Jennifer Kuenzer).
Adding to the fun and confusion is the big-eyed bimbo in itty-bitty underwear (a leggy and hilariously pouty Carine Rice) and the drunken old sod with a cameo role (a foggy Kim Titus), the overwhelmed stage manager (a terrified and frequently panting Juliette Talley). The do-it-all house carpenter (a bright-eyed and broad-shouldered Lloyd Harvey) mans up to every crisis and even stands in for the drunk and anybody else who doesn’t chime in on cue. Chad Gowen Spear is commanding and pleading by turns as the exasperated and exhausted director trying to cajole and or threaten this tremulous troupe of thespians into at least a half-baked show so he can get on to directing Richard III elsewhere. Hanky panky abounds throughout, and private affairs intrude increasingly on public performance, as Nothing On hits the last stop—and Noises Off pulls them all out in CTD’s spot-on ensemble production.