The spiraling hysteria of Michael Frayn's classic farce-within-a-farce, "Noises Off," requires an expert hand at the controls, a director who can keep everything spinning together even as it all falls apart. In his sparkling production at the Lyric Stage Company, where he is also the producing artistic director, Spiro Veloudos shows that he's just the man for the job.
The joke, and the trickiness, of "Noises Off" is that it's the story of a hapless provincial theater company putting on a conventional sex farce called "Nothing On." For the first few minutes, we're watching that very farce -- but we quickly realize that we're seeing a rehearsal of it, and a disastrous rehearsal at that. The almost unbearably funny second act flips the set around to show us the chaos backstage as doors slam, plates of sardines go flying, and actors miss their cues; by the third act, which puts us out front again, the play is falling hilariously down around the actors' ears.
Veloudos and his wonderfully coordinated ensemble set all this up beautifully. The acting "onstage" in the dreadful "Nothing On" presents every imaginable shade of third-rate hamminess, confusion, and cliche -- all done without winking, which would wreck the fun. These terrific actors know just how to look like terrible actors, and they know they don't have to tell us they're really terrific.
Kristen Sergeant, as the preening, scantily clad dim bulb Brooke, is especially entertaining. Oblivious to everything but her own lines and poses, she induces helpless laughter with her insistence on sticking to what she's rehearsed, even if that means she's talking to empty air where an actor should be.
Sarah deLima, Neil A. Casey, Barlow Adamson, and Bob Jolly also find a thousand ways to make bad acting fun, and Maryann Zschau brings an appropriate gossipy warmth to her role as the company's mother hen. The two non-Equity members of the ensemble, Jessica Healy and David Krinitt, are well cast as stage managers; their less flamboyant styles feel right for these "offstage" roles.
As the beleaguered director of this mess, Jeremiah Kissel perhaps doesn't look exhausted enough -- but his superb vocal range brings an utterly convincing weariness to every harried line. And his ability, when required, to express sarcasm down to his very fingertips is wonderful to behold.
What really makes this production shine, though, is that the whole cast works together as a well-oiled machine. Take the hysterical moment when the whole troupe gets down on the floor to grope around for Brooke's lost contact lens. It looks spontaneous and unplanned, but their scrabbling hands and mincing feet echo each other in a beautifully choreographed little dance that can only come from careful direction and meticulous rehearsal.
Veloudos, in short, gives "Noises Off" everything that the poor, doomed cast of "Nothing On" doesn't get: crisp blocking, swift pacing, and smooth ensemble work. He's helped, too, by David Cabral's suitably stereotyped costumes -- the black lace for Brooke, the tiny floral print for the charwoman -- and Eleanor Moore's unobtrusive lighting design (though things could perhaps be a little brighter in Act 2). Robert M. Russo's perfectly bourgeois set for "Nothing On" turns neatly around for the backstage action; the dismantling and reassembly take a bit too long in the two intermissions, but it's hard to see how it could go any faster. And whoever wrote the deadpan program for "Nothing On" that's inserted in the real program for "Noises Off" deserves a raise. Like the production itself, it's funny, pointed, and smart enough to let us figure out the joke for ourselves.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Play in three acts by Michael Frayn
Directed by: Spiro Veloudos. Set, Robert M. Russo. Lights, Eleanor Moore. Costumes, David Cabral.
At: Lyric Stage Company, through June 5