Pegasus Players

Ever since Aristophanes, writers of comedy have dreamed of creating a nonstop laugh machine. Playwright Michael Frayn has fashioned out of mere stage directions and dialogue a three-act contraption–Noises Off–that milks laughs from audiences as tear gas milks the eyes. His loony comedy craft is almost as deadly as the killer joke the Monty Pythonites dared not say aloud: by the end of Noises Off, you feel as if some comic bulldozer has repeatedly run you over though it’s your own laughter that’s flattened you.

It’s risky to attempt a synopsis of this kind of killer farce; you could get sucked into a Bermuda triangle of plot spinning. But here goes. In Noises Off we’re hurled through the first act–in three different incarnations–from an imaginary very silly, veddy British sex farce, Nothing On, that’s deservedly playing the provinces. (To add to the illusion, Pegasus Players even provides a program within a program.) Nothing On takes place in a proper country home that gradually fills up with various home invaders: a randy couple, a pompous burglar, an improbable sheikh, and the mansion’s owners, a playwright and his wife intent on concealing their return to England so they don’t have to pay income tax. Maneuvering around a dizzy maid, and bent on eluding each other, the home invaders make split-second, intricately choreographed exits and entrances, with much slamming of doors. The actors carry off this farce with the usual crude camp, semaphore gestures, shameless hamminess, and heavy ogling.

On this level alone, Noises Off triumphs. It’s a cunning spoof of the kind of smarmy, lobotomized English burlesque Benny Hill cheerfully exploits, much like the incredibly popular No Sex, Please, We’re British. Despite the naughty puns, leaden exposition, telegraphed laughs, and overreliance on prop-heavy plots–much of the action here is intricately connected to a plate of sardines that seems to wander everywhere–this is a type of comedy that works.

But Frayn wants to do more than parody; he wants to assemble the definitive anthology of everything that can go wrong in the theater, a perpetual-motion demonstration of what happens when the script is willing but the flesh is weak.

In sidesplitting variations on the theme of chaos, Frayn lets us see what’s going on as the first act of Nothing On steadily deteriorates–in three different theaters. We first see the farce in a straightforward, if tempestuous, final run-through. In the second version, a month later, we see it from backstage. Now the play’s an actors’ nightmare as the disgruntled cast, mired in alcohol, jealousies, and rampant egotripping, fiendishly enact an unintentional farce within a farce, a complex mime show superimposed on the play itself. Finally, when we once again see it from the front a few weeks later, this surprisingly delicate house of farce has collapsed under the weight of angry ad-libs and demented improvisation.

Sending Murphy’s Law into overdrive and suspending all suspension of disbelief, Frayn detonates a disaster a minute: a slight bump means a lost contact lens; a bottle of whiskey passed around like a fire bucket gets predictable results; during the “intermission,” the imaginary audience is given wildly conflicting estimates of when the curtain will go up; and worst of all, the temperamental actors turn their backstage romances and childish feuds into scene-stealing sabotage.

Frayn’s comedy machine sets up expectations, then drives them over a cliff; like the set, each actor/character exists only to be turned inside out. Michael Leavitt’s inspired staging anchors the crises in the characters and makes even the most horrendous happenings look spontaneous. With few stumbles, Leavitt matches actor to role, expression to action, and line to laugh; his stopwatch timing propels the frenzy to escape velocity.

What these nine players go through gives a new meaning to “paying your dues” (and maybe to “break a leg” as well); they ought to receive combat pay. Both “onstage” as the dithering maid and “offstage” as the leading man’s jealous sweetheart, Elizabeth Muckley is a classic comedienne (she even looks like Irene Dunne) who can lurch from an unflappable, almost innocent confusion to–well, anything she wants. As the leading man, Christopher Cartmill evolves from an earnest twit into a disillusioned former team player; his final tumble down a staircase is rich with Chaplinesque pathos.

Larry Yando is equally on target as the slow-burning, sarcastic director who, for all his bluster, can’t pull this chestnut out of the fire. Pamela Webster is wonderfully obtuse as the director’s vacuum-headed, literal-minded girlfriend (in her role as the randy lady, she’s the kind of actress who, no matter the mayhem, robotically recites her lines and follows her blocking). Elaine Carlson is a harried techie, the director’s neglected other girlfriend, and Brian Mark Conover is the caught-in-the-crossfire stage manager. Tom Stadler and Kelly Nespor a superb as the terminally flustered playwright (and overly apologetic type of actor) and his respectably brain-damaged wife (and the most dedicated of the thespians).

All of them mug as if they had invented it, but my favorite send-up is Jerry Bloom’s cunning Selsdon Mowbray, the dipsomaniacal, doddering Shakespearean hack now reduced to playing an ancient burglar. Bloom gives Selsdon such a stentorian “master thespian” overkill it’s nearly noble; trying to work King Lear into his clumsy cameo, his second-balcony voice quavering with addlepated conviction, Selsdon is a hilarious tribute to a desperate actor’s boozy ingenuity.

Ingenuity is the keynote of Russ Jones’s elaborate two-sided set; it’s a show in itself as the four hardworking Pegasus stagehands turn Nothing On inside out, not once but twice. Peter Gottlieb’s lighting neatly contrasts stage artifice with “real” rehearsal work lights and backstage blue lights. Jeffrey Kelly and John Nasco’s costumes are part of the brilliant battle plan the actors use to attack their parts. And attack them they do–with professionally inept results. It’s all that Michael Frayn, architect of calamity, could ask for.

May they never get it right.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.