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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Noises Off — Curio Theatre

untitled (89)As serious and incisive as Michael Frayn can be in plays like “Copenhagen” and “Democracy,” he is known in most of his novels and theater pieces for poking deliciously mean fun at everything from the value of art to holiday resorts.

In “Noises Off,” Frayn’s topic is the theater, and he goes about his work from several angles. First of all, there’s actors, a middle-grade ensemble in free fall as they tour the English hinterlands in a low-grade farce, “Nothing On,” another source of parody and comedy.

Frayn lampoons the popular British genre of slamming doors, sexual innuendo, and dotty characters, including a character named Dotty, while also setting smirking sights on the actors and crew member who play relationship roulette as they travel to exotic spots with delicious English names like Weston-super-Mare and Stockton-on-Tees.

“Noises Off” begins with a rehearsal of the farce, one done in costume so actors are confused whether it’s a dress rehearsal, tech rehearsal, or both. It then moves backstage where the shenanigans comes with higher stakes and are more hilarious than the gags in “Nothing On,” which proceeds on the other side of the set.

“Noises Off” is production-dependent. It can build into a non-stop riot or be bloody deadly based solely on how smartly a director manages Frayn’s send-up. You have to be able to take in the merits and clichés of “Nothing On,” with its jokes about sardines and identical bags, and follow the various backstage romances and revenges as close as Belinda, an actress who never misses a bit of gossip, does.

Peter Reynolds, directing for Curio Theatre, keeps stage traffic moving briskly while clearly defining characters, their personal traits, and their performances on- and backstage. Reynolds and his cast play the farcical elements of “Noises Off” just right, so you’re always delighted by the ensuing mayhem and enjoy many well-earned laughs.

Reynolds’s lively staging has two important things going for it. He lets his characters be individuals, so the habits and foibles Frayn built into them come through clearly. Garry Lejeune, a youth lead as his name implies, for instance, never finished a sentence. He makes his points by waving his arms and saying, “You know, the what-you-may-call-it,” yet everyone understands his drift, which is usually a question about some aspect of direction. Andrew Carroll, an actor who has made an impression in several roles and especially as the hero in idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium’s “Ondine,” is marvelous at playing Lejeune’s gesticulatory articulateness. The man gets tongue-tied , but thrusts his arms to the side and says, “Well, there it is,” and he draws laughs because of his comic skill and because he makes Garry’s surrender of language so natural and authentic.

Then there’s Isabella Fehlandt’s hilarious way of showing her how character, Vicki, locks in a performance so hermetically, no calamity on- or backstage can keep from doing her lines and stage business the exact same way every time. Vicki is like a robot. No matter what obstacles Frayn or Reynolds puts on stage, Vicki soldiers on, delivering her lines and going through any choreographed motions on perfect cue. Fehlandt’s concentration is admirable as she keeps Vicki from being rattled once “Nothing On’s” curtain goes up. She is just as good as bit of a prima donna in the offstage drama.

Kyra Baker’s Belinda is another who gets your deserved attention as she says, “Didn’t you know that?” and proceeds with the background of every romance and intrigue that befalls the “Nothing On” cast. Because Belinda is so up to date, she is above the backstage fray, being more a commentator than a participant. She is also the most consistently clear-headed, taking on other actors’ responsibilities for slamming doors or producing sound effects when they are too busy swinging fire axes or tying shoelaces together to respond to their cue.

Steve Carpenter has a breakthrough performance as the company factotum who jumps between costumes as the general male understudy while also being called upon to fix doors and props and to serve in making liquidy sounding front-of-house announcements, such as “Ladies and gentlemen, please take you seats. The curtain will rise in two minutes.” Doug Greene makes the most of his character’s dimness and lucklessness when in real life.

NealBoxEveryone seems to having a ball. Aetna Gallagher’s Dotty has a perpetual smile on her face while playing the “Nothing On” housekeeper, Mrs. Clackett, but a grim or sad look when she thinks, Garry, with whom she’s having a May-to-December love affair, is cheating on her and sees false, but persuasive, evidence of it wherever she looks.

Even Newton Buchanan, who has the straightest as the director who stages “Nothing On,” and has to run backstage to correct improvements to his direction or soothe frayed nerves every time he visits his ensemble on the road. Because he is involved in two of the romances, Buchanan’s Lloyd gets involved with some of the farce as well.

Rachel Gluck is constant as Poppy, a diligent stage manager who loses some composure when she realizes she has Vicki as a rival for Lloyd’s affections. Leonard Kelly is aces as Selsden, a veteran actor who doesn’t many parts because he tipples so constantly if given the chance. Kelly excellently shows Seldsden’s talent as an actor while licking his lips and longing to some the whiskey he spies in a bottle making the rounds among other cast members, usually in an attempt to hide the booze from him.

A cast that knows and goes about its business so adroitly is a blessing. There are time when matters get so hectic, it’s difficult to follow what’s happening in all three rings of Frayn’s circus, but in general, Reynolds’s cast is spot-on when it comes being where they need to be and conveying what they need to convey at any big comic moment.

The show is funny on many levels. By playing their types so deftly, Reynolds’s cast conveys al of Frayn’s jokes about minor calamities that occur during rehearsal and how an actor’s personality allows him to do his job cooperatively on stage while bearing a loathing for a castmate and expressing it behind the scenery, where the second act of “Noises Off” takes place.

Though he keeps his actors moving at a decent clip, Reynolds takes the time to be sure the stage business he’s designed, often in direct response to Frayn’s lines or directions, lingers long enough to register with the audience. He provides a “Noises Off” that is paced just right to be farcical as a play and intelligent in its execution. The director doesn’t let you miss any of Carroll’s dithering, Fehlandt’s tussle with contact lenses, or Gallagher’s confusion with props, especially the all-important sardines.

In writing and blending two plays, Frayn shows his skill as the architect of one of those dreadful farces that depend so much on mutual misunderstanding among its characters and an arch, aware commentator on how a rehearsal and long skein of performances can go awry. The “Nothing On” cast may be pressing to get their parts right in the Act One rehearsal. By Act Three, they are letter perfect but let everything happening backstage impinge on the show, so everyone is improvising to cover missed entrances, and Carpenter and Gluck are dressing as multiple characters, often going on in lieu of the scheduled actor.

At Curio, the first two acts work better than the third, which is the most complex because the audience can imagine what’s going on backstage while it witnesses the trainwreck happening out front. Buchanan even joins the onstage mayhem as “Nothing On” collapses under its own vindictive, vituperative weight.

The third act is the muddiest, but it has some wonderful moments, such as when three actors — Kelly, Buchanan, and Carpenter — appear as the same character in the same costume at the same time because Buchanan and Carpenter thinks Selsden is drunk, AWOL, and about to miss cue. It’s fun to see the three actors speak in unison as they go ahead, Vicki-like, and do their lines as if nothing is unusual or amiss.

As “Nothing On,” the farce being rehearsed and performed, goes on, Carroll for all Lejeune’s confusion, Baker, Kelly, and Greene are particularly good in their roles, showing Lloyd’s company has some talent going for it no matter how badly things go awry.

One of the stars of Curio’s production is Paul Kuhn’s set which meets all of the requirements for multiple doors and works as the country house for “Nothing On,” complete with a comfy sofa, a moveable television, frosted diamond-shaped windows, and surfaces on which can place forgotten plates of sardines and for the backstage fracases that lead to “Noises Off.” The backstage set is a lesson on how entrances are marked, props are laid, and actors waiting to go one contribute to sound production and other necessary business to keep the onstage show running smoothly.

The most remarkable thing, given the Curio’s physical space is how Kuhn built a revolve, one he and others have to push manually (while grunting audibly) that serves “Noises Off’s” dual locales perfectly.

Aetna Gallagher’s costumes are geared mostly to the clothing characters will wear in “Nothing On,” and she has a good eye for choosing. Buchanan’s Lloyd looks natty and modern in a jacket and turtleneck combination. Carpenter’s Tim’s own garb is as astute as the various costumes he dons when he thinks he might have to take stage as an understudy. Tim Marin’s lighting directs you to the various places you need to look if you want to call that is happening.

“Noises Off” runs through Saturday, May 30, at Curio Theater, 4740 Baltimore Avenue (48th and Baltimore), in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Tickets are $25 with discounts available for seniors and theater industry members. They can be obtained by calling 215-525-1350 or by visiting www.curiotheatre.org.

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