There's lots to like in the Alley Theatre's production of Michael Frayn's Noises Off, which closes the company's Large Stage season. A solid cast of regulars carries much of the play, as does the mobile, impressive stage (literally) by Hugh Landwehr, which is set on wheels to be continuously turned about during scene changes. It's an interesting process to watch during intermission.
The story follows the disastrous rehearsals and performances of a doomed theater troupe, and for a while, it all zips along nicely. John Feltch makes for a wryly smug director, and director Gregory Boyd's decision to have him enter the action from the top of the audience rows gives the production an added sense of humorous reality.
All the actors are game, and Frayn's script is peppered with quick-witted one-liners and truly hilarious moments, but as the play chugs toward its pull-out-all-the-stops finale, there seems to be something almost labored about the proceedings. In the end, the Alley's rendition of Frayn's lightning-quick script begins to drag, feeling a bit more like an aging, tired jackrabbit.
It's no fault of the writing, and it's hardly due to performance - there isn't a single weak link in the bunch. What it all comes down to, then, is the fact that Boyd's initially serviceable direction just can't manage to keep up with the frenetic pace of everything else that's going on. All the sexy, silly and just plain goofy fun becomes nearly invisible in the midst of such obvious supervision.
That's a shame, too, because this Noises Off desperately wants to be laugh-out-loud funny. And it often is, especially when the interaction between actors turns sarcastic and snide. What's really amazing about the whole thing is the fact that Frayn's farce is really a play-
within-a-play. For example, talented actress Annalee Jefferies portrays aging actress Dotty Otley in Noises Off, who in turn is taking on the role of ditzy housekeeper Mrs. Clackett in the fictional play Nothing On, which is being presented within this play.
Confused? You won't be once everything settles in and the cast takes a swing at these plum roles.
Jefferies is a crotchety, crabby delight as Dotty Otley, and Charles Dean is a riot as her not-so-secret, jealous lover, Garry Lejeune. The pairs' bitter shenanigans as they try to sabotage each other's performances near the end of the play are a hoot.
Paul Hope and Shelley Williams are also good as a stage couple, Frederick Flowers and Belinda Blair, respectively. Hope is quite able at playing uptight and wishy-washy, and Williams seems to relish her role as a nosy know-it-all who likes to keep on top of all the gossip. Williams' exaggerated facial expressions are one of the play's many comic highlights.
Elizabeth Heflin, so seductively saucy as Clytemnestra in the Alley's recent production of The Greeks, strikes a blonder, ditzier note as ingenue Brooke Ashton, who spends much of the play running around in her unmentionables. Heflin showcases an impressive blend of timing and true comic skill in this airhead of a role.
Jeffrey Cox is endearing and sweet as Tim, the company's Everyman. Linda Larkin, who provided the voice of Jasmine in Disney's Aladdin, appears in a guest role as Poppy, the show's sensitive stage manager who gets mixed up in a tangled web of romance. Larkin's delicate presence and likable spirit give us a sympathetic character to root for amid all the backstabbing.
It is Charles Krohn, though, who provides many of the evening's biggest laughs. As Selsdon, the faded, drunken, wandering actor in the troupe, Krohn is a deadpan delight. His body language and delivery are perfection in his portrayal of an actor whose skill leaves him intermittently.
With all this bustling talent and genius staging, Nosies Off seems like a sure-fire success, but it is ultimately weighed down by Boyd's lackluster direction. He gives the actors free reign for a while, but Boyd tightens the ropes so much near the end that you can practically see the actors going through the motions. That's deadly ground in a farce.
Boyd's hand isn't terribly off- center, but his decisions seem a bit too forced, too obvious for such a no-holds-barred script. Instead of flowing with the action, Boyd seems to want to control it, and it makes the rest of the production suffer. Noises Off is hardly a failure, but tighter direction would have made the payoff a little more sweeter and a whole lot funnier.
Performances of Noises Off are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays through June 14. The Alley Theatre is located at 615 Texas Ave., and tickets are $31 to $46. Call (713) 228-8421 for reservations or more information.