By Patricia Morris Buckley
It takes great precision to do a farce right. A door slam, a miscommunication, a surprise: All these take great skill to do just right so they’re hysterical. So it’s no surprise that Cygnet Theatre has accomplished this with “Noises Off,” its season opener at the Old Town Theatre.
Michael Frayn’s Tony Award-winning comedy centers around a dress rehearsal for a small touring production of the bawdy farce “Nothing On.” The only thing difficult about the first act is that we get to see the actual play — which is fairly bad and the acting is worse (and if you’re thinking pretending to act badly is easy for good actors, think again).
In the play “Nothing on,” the action takes place in an English cottage of a well-to-do playwright who is escaping enormous taxes by living in Spain. His housekeeper watches the house except on her afternoon off, which is when two couples appear for romantic interludes. And of course, there are many mix-ups and misunderstandings throughout.
Luckily, the rehearsal of “Nothing On” is interrupted many times as the actors keep forgetting their lines, questioning their motivations and forgetting which props go where. After a while, you can’t help but laugh at such befuddled folks. And when the actors aren’t performing “Nothing On,” they’re gossiping about who is sleeping with whom and who is drinking too much, which is quite a list.
The director, Lloyd, is more concerned with getting on to his next show, “Richard III,” and sleeping with the lead bimbo as well as the stage manager. The lead actress, Dottie, is an aging TV comedian who has sunk a chunk of her savings into this tour. Meanwhile, she’s romancing one of the actors and has her eyes on another. Add to this another aging actor known for his drinking, an ingénue who wasn’t hired for her acting ability, a mother hen actress who likes to gossip and an actor whose wife has just left him.
The second act takes a step further as the show is a few weeks into its tour and now we see the show from backstage. The slight jealous malignancies have blossomed into major cancers that cause the actors to sabotage each other, while others are picking up the mess in hopes that the audience won’t notice. The third act is at the end of the tour and any pretenses of the actors getting along is so far gone that even the audience can tell, as the set has turned once again and we watch the first act a third time.
Cygnet has assembled a cast filled with the acting elite of San Diego. But what’s more surprising are the solid performances by the less well-known members of the cast. Rosina Reynolds is willing to step over the line into clownishness as Dottie, the first character to become unhinged, bringing down the others like a row of dominoes (Carol Burnett played the role in the film version).
Jonathan McMurtry is almost underused as veteran actor Selsdon, who can sniff out a bottle of booze anywhere, and he still can do more without speaking than any other San Diego actor. Sandy Campbell is pitch-perfect as the mother hen figure, while Jason Heil is an excellent linchpin for all the craziness. The most interesting performance is Jason Connors, who as man-of-all jobs Tim Allgood, is light on his toes and with his lines, just as a farce should be played.
In fact, the only real criticism of the play is that it isn’t as light on its feet as it could be. The mimed backstage action during the second act is the perfect illustration of this — it’s so well done, it is mesmerizing. If only the rest of the play had that careless feel to it, rather than making every line important. Director Sean Murray had the opportunity to take a good production and bring it up a level or two.
The heroes of the design team are costume designer Corey Johnston and wig/makeup designer Peter Herman, whose work takes us right back to the long sideburns, mini-skirts and beehive hairdos of the ‘70s. Sean Fanning’s many-doored set seems creaky at first, but we quickly realize that this company is operating on a tiny budget, and so it works perfectly.
“Noises Off” is a great show for audiences who know theater and for those who wish they did. Cygnet’s production is long, but worth the time spent in the theater.
Where: Cygnet Theatre at Old Town Theatre, 2020 Twiggs St., San Diego
When: Through Aug. 23; performances 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, 7 p.m. Sundays
Tickets: $17-$46; discounts for children, seniors, students, active-duty military and groups
Information: (619) 337-1525
Patricia Morris Buckley has been reviewing the arts in San Diego for 25 years.