Frank Rich, erstwhile theater critic of The New York Times, wrote of Michael Frayn's farce Noises Off that it "is, was, and probably always will be the funniest play written in my lifetime." Had he seen Strollers Theatre's current production at the Bartell he might have revised his opinion. Frayn's script is still thigh-slappingly hilarious but, thanks to Jewell Fitzgerald's unfocused direction and the generally impoverished quality of the acting, your legs are likely to leave the auditorium bruise-free.
Frayn's play follows in the great tradition of British bedroom farces, a venerable form that employs improbable plot situations, exaggerated characters and bawdy innuendo. The gloriously convoluted action of Noises Off, with its Russian doll structure, centers on an English drama troupe that is about to embark on a national tour, presenting its own farce, Nothing On. The story begins at a disastrous dress rehearsal and follows the motley thespian crew as their personal foibles, sexual peccadilloes and dramatic shortcomings are embarrassingly revealed, both onstage and behind the scenes. The whole Augean mess culminates in a truly horrendous final performance where weeks of frustration and backstage backstabbing spill over into one of the most vicious (and viciously funny) performances to ever grace a stage.
This potentially hysterical undertaking is sabotaged at almost every turn by Fitzgerald and her cast. The English accents are mostly unintelligible, even nonexistent; a stagehand looks like he just walked off a construction site in Brooklyn; the pre-show music is appallingly inappropriate (and very unwelcome in Act Two as it drowns out the dialogue); the names of English towns are routinely mispronounced. (They are even misspelled in the "playbill within a playbill" that is provided to give credence to the producers of Nothing On.)
Only a few of the actors salvage any dignity from the wreckage: Erin Baal as the befuddled Mrs. Otley, who is beset at every turn by errant plates of sardines; Meghan McDonnell as Belinda Blair, who unsuccessfully tries to maintain order in the chaos; and Liz Angle as the intellectually challenged ingenue Brooke Ashton, who loses her clothes as frequently as her contact lenses.
The dictionary defines farce as a "light, humorous play in which the plot depends upon a skillfully exploited situation rather than upon the development of character." It also defines it as "a mockery." This production has unfortunately eschewed the former in favor of the latter.