For its season finale, Circle Bar B has surpassed its previous show, the zany golf farce The Fox on the Fairwayby Ken Ludwig, with the even loonier Noises Offby Michael Frayn. “Noises Off,” said producer and actress Susie Couch, “is Fox on the Fairway on steroids!” But this dedicated and able cast handles the extra amperage well and turned in an impressive performance on the first Sunday matinee of a six-week run. Noises Off is a notoriously demanding show, with each actor playing several layers of roles at once. The play opens with a touring theater struggling through the dress rehearsal of an English farce, titled Nothing On, with all the revolving-door confusion, dropped trousers, and women’s underwear that one might expect. Later we see the same act a few weeks into the tour — from the backstage perspective — as personal relationships between the actors have grown and devolved. Finally we witness the last dreaded performance of the tour.
Innovative set designs by William York Hyde and adaptive direction by Miller James allow the staging of Noises Off — usually performed on a split-level set — to work in the low-ceilinged barn theater at Circle Bar B. But it is the compelling characterizations and the physical humor of the actors that really make this show. Tiffany Story turns in a terrific performance as the melting Dottie, who finds perverse glee in everyone’s misery by the end. Katherine Bottoms does a fine job as the self-involved airhead Brooke, while Susie Couch is wonderful as Belinda, the ever-chipper mediator (until she’s crossed and within arm’s reach of a fire axe). Joseph Bottoms is very funny as the conflicted, neurotic Frederick while George Coe plays a convincing Garry, a man whose strong convictions outpace his ability to complete a sentence. But one performance that was especially captivating for me, delightfully nuanced and brilliant, was Robert Higbee as the aging and drink-prone Selsdon. Completing the cast are the fine presences of Jean Hall, William York Hyde, and Joseph Beck (who alternates with director Miller James in the role of Lloyd).
The outrageous complexity that develops in the backstage scene reminds one of a set of Beethoven’s variations — the original theme continues to run apace, but now there are intervals and ornaments to juggle. We witness the same entrances and exits and hear the same dialogue, but now pantomimed before us are several high-urgency dramas involving romance, envy, drink, and ego that toe the actors to the edge of walk-out. Noises Off is definitely a show for anyone who’s ever been a theater insider and needs a good cathartic laugh at their craft. The command ‘Noises off!’ is a stage direction for ‘Quiet backstage!’ and, of course, the central conceit in question is just how much dirt can be pitched backstage before it spills forward. Yet it is also a loving tribute to misplaced props, missed entrances, and the anxieties of a looming opening.