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THEATER REVIEW : Farce Field at Warp Speed : Huntington Beach Playhouse cast gets a workout in breakneck-speed 'Noises Off,' energized by director's touches.

November 01, 1995|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HUNTINGTON BEACH — Judging by the number of upcoming productions of Michael Frayn's frantic farce "Noises Off," it is rapidly becoming a staple in theaters large and small. And no wonder. It's very funny.

The play details the harrowing, and often hilarious, adventures of a third-rate British theater company touring in a farce-within-the-farce called "Nothing On," by the fictitious Robin Housemonger.

Act I takes place on the set during the disastrous dress rehearsal before the tour begins. Act II, where everything begins to fall apart, takes place backstage during a performance, and Act III is at the company's final performance. The incompetence of the company, from actors to backstage crew, is the point and their personal involvements the salt in the wounds they inflict on their British provincial audiences.

Farce is probably the most difficult form of comedy to make work well, and director Darlene Hunter-Chaffee, in this production at Huntington Beach Playhouse, observes the basic rules to good effect.

As George M. Cohan said he learned early, farce has to whip along at a breakneck speed, and Hunter-Chaffee keeps her foot off the brakes after setting very bright tempos in the expository first act.

The tempos increase during the all-important second act, where timing is all and a missed cue can be tragic. She has even added some vaudeville shtick of her own as the actors swivel onstage and off during the performance, in anger, desperation and chaos.

The director's only error is allowing some of the actors to overplay slightly.

Bill Peters is very funny as leading man Garry LeJeune, but he could get even more laughs in his bumbling with more restraint. The cluckiness of Rob Rainey's stage manager is also right, but the few times he starts to play it too broadly don't ring quite true. And John Gilbert's drunken, aging ham suffers from unnecessary mugging.

*

Mary O'Brien, as the tour's star, is very restrained, and it works beautifully. Reges D'Emidio as the tour's second male lead generally holds back effectively, but his Act III bandages look like Edith Head creations.

Brenan Baird's frustrated director, who not only is guiding the company but also bedding a couple of them, is well-played with just enough edge to overcome the stereotype written into the role.

Jessica Margaret Dean as the company bimbo, on and off the stage, and Leanna Rodgers as the barely competent assistant stage manger both shine through their realism and constraint.

The best-balanced performance is also the most difficult--making company gossip and nag Belinda Blair likable--and Beth Kellermann accomplishes the trick neatly and with a marvelous sense of humor.

The reversible set by Mary & Martin G. Eckmann isn't as fancy in front as some earlier productions, but both sides look authentically like the set this benighted company would travel with.

* "Noises Off," Huntington Beach Playhouse, Huntington Beach Library and Cultural Center, 7111 Talbert Ave., Huntington Beach. Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Ends Sunday. $12. (714) 375-0696. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Mary O'Brien Dottie Otley

Brenan Baird Lloyd Dallas

Bill Peters Garry LeJeune

Jessica Margaret Dean Brooke Ashton

Leanna Rodgers Poppy Norton-Taylor

Reges D'Emidio Frederick Fellowes

Beth Kellermann Belinda Blair

Rob Rainey Tim Allgood

John Gilbert Selsdon Mowbray

A Huntington Beach Playhouse production of Michael Frayn's farce. Produced by Catherine Ann Stipp. Executive producer Malcolm Armstrong. Directed by Darlene Hunter-Chaffee. Scenic design: Mary & Martin G. Eckmann. Technical direction: Martin G. Eckmann. Costumes: Lorraine Partridge. Stage manager: Kathleen Rainey.

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