by Michael Bowen

People are funny when they act like machines. Whether it's Charlie Chaplin caught up in oversize gears or Lucy falling frantically behind the conveyor belt at the chocolate factory, we giggle when people try to act with inhuman regularity. Because we can't be machines and weren't meant to be: We have our quirks, after all. Sometimes we fall a little behind.

Noises Off, Michael Frayn's 1982 farce (on the Civic's Main Stage through Oct. 23), exposes how machine-like acting is. Asked to go through the same motions every night, actors run the danger of losing actual human contact with those around them: Say the line, hit your mark, make your exit. But what if the props start disappearing? What if people start saying the wrong lines at the wrong time? What if they set traps for you behind the scenes?

Director Troy Nickerson's ensemble overcomes a labored first act to generate a show more entertaining (and definitely funnier) than nearly every Civic production of last season. As we watch nine actors scurrying about both backstage and onstage -- missing cues, fumbling props, sabotaging one another's performances -- we laugh at the absurdity of how, in this big farce called life, we all need to improvise, blindly, in just the same way.

Good farce -- one belly laugh following hard upon another -- depends on the infectious laughter of one part of the audience cascading into all parts of the audience. But Friday's opening-night spectators, all dressed up and fresh from schmoozing over the canap & eacute;s and ogling the silent auction items, treated Frayn's play more as an interlude between opportunities to network than as the main event. The three or four folks with really loud and high-pitched laughs -- the sort who get the rest of us laughing -- didn't really establish a critical mass until after intermission.

Maybe it was the slowness of the setup. The first act of Noises Off -- the final dress rehearsal before opening night of a third-rate British farce called Nothing On (the play within a play) -- is burdened with all the necessary exposition, having to pause to introduce the characters and their foibles. It's full of embarrassing gaffes -- actors screwing up the way all of us do in daily life - but it lacks the lickety-split intensity of performance. For a non-British audience of primarily non-theater folks -- and with Nickerson's cast stepping on lines to emphasize their idiosyncrasies -- the exposition slows the action to a plod, freezing the empty grins on our faces.

But the two parts of this production's second half -- a performance of Nothing On, a month into the run, but seen entirely from a backstage perspective; and yet another performance, but this time yet another month later, and seen from the normal front-of-house vantage point -- run much more quickly, providing a series of hilarious payoffs.

Four performances stand out. Melody Deatherage plays the dotty housekeeper in pigeon-toed bunny slippers and a housecoat. She's bamboozled by props -- put the receiver back and take the plate of sardines with you, dearie -- but she's clever enough when she wants, sabotaging her fellow actors' performances during all the frenetic second-act backstage mayhem.

As the director of all this inset mess, Jamie Flanery does a slow burn while dealing with a cast full of eccentrics. Flanery does a wonderful job of conveying that this man is stooping to work in the provinces, that he's an Important Man of the Theater, and that any pretty young thing is capable of turning him into a romantic lummox.

Patrick McHenry-Kroetch, his character about as suave as a third-rate actor can be when he's wearing a white belt and white shoes, shows a flair for physical comedy, especially when he spends much of the second act with his shoelaces tied together.

Frayn's genius is to put McHenry-Kroetch's character -- who's so inarticulate that all his sentences trail off into ellipses --into a situation that calls for expert improvisation: props appear and disappear, entrances and exits are mistimed, the wrong actors show up in the wrong parts. In other words, it's sort of like life in cubicle hell.

And then Frayn doubles the fun by placing the myopic bimbo (Allison Standley) onstage, bare down to her knickers for all the world to see. Standley's character -- a Barbie doll who's self-conscious about her cleavage -- regards stage acting as a series of poses. She rattles off her lines, oblivious to whatever anyone else onstage is doing. Standley conveys the bobble-head doll's sense that her lines are just interludes between opportunities to smile vacantly at all her admirers out there in the dark.

After the first-act preliminaries are out of the way, there's a lot to admire in the door-slamming fun of the Civic's Noises Off.

Publication date: 10/07/04

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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.