Exceptional actors portraying ridiculous actors in a mediocre troupe mesh well for the ingeniously constructed British farce "Noises Off!" But add a two-tiered set of multiple doors and a pesky plate of sardines, and you're in for a madcap evening of theater that is a masterful tapestry of nimble timing, mad ninja dexterity, and silly backstage shenanigans.
Journalist-turned-playwright Michael Frayn has rewritten his much-heralded 1982 play several times, and The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents the most recent revision, 2011, to close out its 47th season. The slick ensemble demonstrates high-precision comedic skills, showcasing the remarkable stamina and energy necessary for such a demanding show.
The show's taut three-act framework stays the same: The first act is a dreadful dress rehearsal, foreshadowing what's ahead. The second act is a shaky performance a month later that becomes a riotously funny backstage free-for-all, set in motion by romantic entanglements gone awry, with jealousies and vengeance wreaking havoc. The third act is an escalating disaster of titanic proportions near the end of the 10-week run.
The play slyly builds this progression, setting up in the tamer first act much of the humor that will be unleashed in the next two. We meet the daffy cast of "Nothing On!," a feeble bedroom farce about to tour in obscure locations throughout the U.K. We are introduced to both their characters and their more colorful personalities.
There's the scattered late middle-aged Dotty (Dale Hodges), the pompous Frederick Fellowes (Andy Prosky), the shapely dim-bulb Brooke Ashton (Ruth Pferdehirt), sensible Belinda Blair (Victoria Adams-Zischke), the put-upon stage manager Tim (Kevin Sebastian), emotional Poppy (Rebeca Miller) and the exasperated director Lloyd (Fletcher McTaggart).
John Scherer, hysterically funny in 2012's "The Foreigner," returns as the befuddled Garry Lejeune, and his razor-sharp work is crisp, snappy and hilarious. The legendary Joneal Joplin makes his 92nd appearance at The Rep as unreliable Selsdon, a bumbling alcoholic.
The slapstick antics both off-stage and on are choreographed like a high-wire trapeze act -- evidence of director Edward Stern's astute skills. The crescendo of chaos in the second act is as admirable as a magical Cirque du Soleil routine -- the polished efforts worthy of the crowd's shrieks and giggles. You will laugh so hard your sides will ache.
The set by James Wolk is so stunning that when it revolved at the start of Act II, the audience applauded enthusiastically.
The only thing to gripe about was the sound -- whether it was the heavy cockney accents combined with the quicksilver delivery, or an acoustical issue -- but lack of understanding dialogue at times hampered enjoyment for some not familiar with the play.
My advice -- make sure to read up on the play before you arrive so you have an inkling of what's transpiring. And enjoy the hilarity of the additional material in the program -- a fictitious playbill of the show this troupe is doing, as well as their "biographies" and some pontificating on theater. It's very clever and a delightful component to this goofy comedy that is definitely a top-shelf achievement at The Rep.
At a glance
What: "Noises Off!"
When: through April 13
Where: The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves, Mo.
Tickets: 314-968-4925; www.repstl.org