Review: ‘Noises Off’ brings high-energy lowbrow humor to San Francisco
Belinda (Nanci Zoppi, left) and her husband Frederick (Craig Marker) act out a scene in a seemingly doomed stage comedy in “Noises Off.”
“Noises Off,” the popular Michael Frayn comedy playing at San Francisco Playhouse, isn’t just a hilarious farce; it’s two farces in one. It’s a hectic backstage comedy about a touring production of a bawdy door-slamming farce.
After premiering in London in 1982 and hitting Broadway the following year, “Noises Off” has played San Francisco several times, starting with a SHN Best of Broadway touring production at the Curran Theatre in 1985. Director Richard Seyd had two extended runs of the comedy just one block away from SF Playhouse at the Marines Memorial Theatre — a hit production that originated at Marin Theatre Company in 1988 and an acclaimed revival that started at San Jose Repertory Theatre in 2003.
The play at the center of the play, titled “Nothing On,” is in trouble from the start. It’s the night before opening, and the actors can’t get through a dress rehearsal without seemingly endless mishaps and inane questions. It all takes place in a house that’s supposedly empty and for rent, but the housekeeper is hanging around, the real estate agent brings a young woman over for a romantic rendezvous, and the owners living abroad sneak back home for a secret anniversary getaway while ducking tax collectors.
This kind of farce requires sharp timing of exits and entrances so that everyone’s just missing each other by seconds, and the fictional actors are miles away from that.
Fading TV star Dotty (a weary and confused Kimberly Richards), playing the housekeeper, can never remember which props she’s supposed to bring with her when she leaves the room. Dotty is dating the much younger Garry (comically doltish Patrick Russell), an amusingly inarticulate actor who always thinks he has something important to say but can’t, you know, quite seem to — you know?
Playing the house owner, Craig Marker’s endearingly self-effacing and thick-headed Freddie lacks Garry’s confidence, always saying “you know how stupid I am about this sort of thing.” The actress playing his wife Belinda (Nanci Zoppi) is gushingly sunny and always looking after her castmates, but also an incorrigible gossip who keeps making trouble despite herself.
Monique Hafen is awfully funny as starlet Brooke, who spends most of the play running around in her underwear. The squeaky-voiced Brooke is an atrocious actress who keeps gesticulating wildly, often causing her to lose her contact lenses, and is hysterically incapable of improvising to cover the many, many mishaps that come up along the way, desperately sticking to the script even when nothing else is.
Brooke is sleeping with the long-suffering director (a sardonic and stentorian-voiced Johnny Moreno, Hafen’s frequent costar at SF Playhouse), who’s also been seeing harried and put-upon assistant stage manager Poppy (amiable, exasperated Monica Ho), leading to hurt feelings all around.
Greg Ayers’ sleep-deprived stage manager Tim is even more overworked, run ragged from having to put out too many fires. Everybody panics every time nobody can find Selsdon (jovial Richard Louis James), an elderly and near-deaf actor with a drinking problem who plays a kvetching burglar. The high-maintenance Selsdon is always disappearing and napping or calling out for forgotten lines and not hearing the answer.
Things just get more and more chaotic over the next two acts as the mishap-ridden play falls apart even further, seen from the front and backstage of George Maxwell’s rotating two-story set of a grand manor with kitschy nautical decor and a whole lot of doors. Sound designer Cliff Caruthers ushers the acts in and out with bits of familiar cocktail classics such as Quincy Jones’ “Soul Bossa Nova” and Henry Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk.”
The pace could be crisper in company producing director Susi Damilano’s staging, and it doesn’t quite reach the heights of hilarity of which the show is capable. Still, it’s an awfully funny show with a terrific cast — what could possibly go wrong?
Contact Sam Hurwitt at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him at Twitter.com/shurwitt.
By Michael Frayn, presented by San Francisco Playhouse
Through: May 13
Where: San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco
Running time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, one intermission
Tickets: $20-$125; 415-677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org