By Tracey D’Astolfo
SALEM — As Poppy the assistant stage manager puts it, “Noises Off” is all about doors and sardines.
And those two items loom large in this play, a farce-within-a-farce set at a seat-of-its-pants British theater.
But the play also gives an original twist to the typical farce. Sure, there’s a lot of “one character comes in one door while another leaves through another” going on — perhaps more than in any other play. And the sexual shenanigans are not exactly subtle.
But what sets “Noises Off” apart is the second act, where the set is turned around so the audience is looking backstage — and witnessing the nuttiness that goes on there.
Salem Community Theatre is staging the play, written by Michael Frayn. It opened Friday in the toasty warm theater before a midsize crowd that probably was diminished by the subzero temperatures.
Hopefully, the thermometer rises so people can’t use the weather as an excuse not to see SCT’s stellar effort, which was rapidly paced by the cast and director Eric Kibler.
“Noises Off” starts with rehearsal of a play (the fictitious “Nothing On”) by a bumbling cast, as its exasperated director tries to wring some competence out of it on the evening before opening night.
James Ballor is superb as the director, both in the sarcastic tone of his disembodied voice when he gives instructions to his cast from his off-stage perch, and even more so when he does get face-to-face with his troupe. He is lean and imposing with an evil goatee.
One reason “Noises Off” works well in the Salem theater is because of the auditorium. It’s a small, converted movie theater, with a shallow stage. By necessity, the set is pushed toward the front of the stage, enhancing the experience for the audience. It really feels like you’re sitting in on a rehearsal.
It takes a whole lot of smoothness to play the role of a screw-up and make it look natural, and the entire nine-person cast looks completely natural. Some are egotistical bunglers, but all are really natural bunglers … and that’s a compliment.
Denise Sculli is a joy as Dotty, who is playing the housekeeper with the cockney accent and attitude (remember, it’s a play within a play). Eric Wayne Coulbourne has the look and demeanor down pat for Garry, who plays the fussy, pasty real estate agent trying to impress his spacey, bimbo girlfriend, Brooke (Melanie Williams, in lingerie much of the time).
Garry and Brooke visit the country home of Philip and Flavia Brent. They thought they’d be alone, but Dotty is there with her sardines. As they try to sneak off to a bedroom, the Brents (played by Eric Kibler and Regina Olszewski Reynolds) return unannounced to their house.
That’s when the eight doors on the stage really get a workout as characters go in and out.
In the second act, the troupe is putting on the play on opening night. Tempers explode backstage in full view of the audience in this legendary scene.
In the third act, the set gets turned back around and we see the same troupe a few months later toward the end of the tour.
The backstage segment works well and is easier to follow than some productions I’ve seen, but it’s not quite as uproarious as it could have been. The cast doesn’t quite have the precision timing and athleticism to do the nonstop slapstick stuff as daringly as possible.
But its strengths were on display most brightly in the final act, when the set is again turned around and the audience sees the troupe in the final performance of its run. It is a complete mess, and it garnered the biggest laughs of the evening, highlighted by Eric Wayne Coulbourne’s pratfall down the stairs. The second set turnaround took several awkward minutes, with the theater kept dark. It might make more sense to draw the curtain or turn on the house lights at this time, to create a clear separation between the acts, which are several months apart.
The fine cast also includes Dave Wack as Selsdon, the tippling actor who plays the burglar; and Michael McGrail and Melissa Bender, who play Tim the stage manager and Poppy the assistant stage manager, respectively.
Salem’s “Noises Off” owes a nod to the set, which plays such a key role. Mark Frost, an SCT regular, designed and oversaw construction of the giant, mobile set, which managed to look flimsy and carefully made at the same time — exactly what you’d expect from a nutty bunch of semipros.
XPerformances are today and Jan. 25 at 2 p.m. and, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Call the Salem Community Theatre, 490 E. State St., for ticket prices and reservations at (330) 332-9688.