"Noises Off" at Lakeland Civic Theatre is a Mostly Satisfying Hot Mess

But neither hot nor messy enough to achieve pure farce this classic script envisions.

click to enlarge "Noises Off" at Lakeland Civic Theatre is a Mostly Satisfying Hot Mess
Lakeland Civic Theatre

During our daily life, when we experience an encounter which we describe as a "farce," we aren't laughing or even smiling. Whether it was a recent PTA meeting or last year's family reunion, if we call it a farce it means it was a hot mess and not particularly amusing. But in theater, farce is supposed to be a laugh riot from beginning to end. And it is, when done with exactitude and a sure sense of truth. In short, farce is one of the most demanding theatrical forms to master.

The classic 40-year-old "Noises Off" by Michael Frayn, now at Lakeland Community College Civic Theatre, requires actors who can maintain precise timing while flying in and out of multiple doors and one window, managing several hand props, and storming up and down a long staircase. It should be a hot mess, but one that leaves the audience limp from excessive guffawing. This production clicks like that now and then, but there are other comedy beats that are lost in the traffic of bodies and the general mayhem that ensues through three acts.

For the uninitiated, "Noises Off" is a play-within-a-play as a British touring theatrical company is mounting a doleful sex farce called "Nothing On." But we only see the first act of that play—first, from out front during a dress rehearsal, then from backstage during a performance a month later, and finally back out front at a concluding performance of the tour.

Not only is this play a stress test for the actors, but it’s also a major task for the stage crew as the massive two-level set must be rotated 180 degrees twice to set up the second and third acts. The lively humor of Frayn's play depends on the audience becoming well-acquainted with the events of that cheesy repeated act. With that knowledge, we can enjoy the growing disaster as on-stage and off-stage relationships fray, petty grievances fester, and everything goes pear-shaped and dissolves into chaos.

Under the direction of Jordan Cooper, the cast hits their marks and the show is buoyed by strong individual performances. As Dotty, who plays the housekeeper Mrs. Clackett, Aimee Collier brings stamina and good humor to her role of an aging actress who is still playing grab-ass with a couple of the younger actors. One of those is Roger, given a nicely dense portrayal by Eric Fancher as he never exits the same sentence he enters. He is accompanied by Brooke (Allison Lehr), who shows up in her undies for most of the show when she isn't looking for a lost contact lens.

Then another couple Freddy (Cody Swanson) and Belinda (Kristy Cruz) arrive, completing the cast except for Selsdon (Kevin Kelly), the inebriated old pro who shows up frequently but never on cue. They are supported, as it were, by stage manager Poppy (Carmen Rey) and crew member Tim (Peter Bradley). The entire kluge is monitored and sarcastically commented on by the play-within-a-play's director Lloyd (Rob Albrecht).

Suffice to say the elements of farce are all here, including Brooke running around in her underwear and high heels, Freddy dropping trou when he isn't tending to a stress nosebleed, Dotty's plates of sardine snacks that mysteriously appear and disappear, random flowers and cactus plants, throw-away subplots involving tax dodgers and rich Arabs, and a fire axe that gets swung by several people.

Given all that, there are plenty of laughs to go around. It's just that this 2 1/2-hour production never clicks on all cylinders enough of the time to provide the ultimate pleasure that a tight, crisp farce can offer. But that, as the play notes, is life: sometimes it's just doors and sardines.

Noises Off,  through Oct.  9 at Lakeland Community College Civic Theatre, 7700 Clocktower Drive, Kirtland, lakelandcc.edu/arts.

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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