Farces have been keeping audiences slapping their knees ever since cavemen learned to trip into the fire on purpose. A case can be made that the most exquisitely funny farce ever devised is Michael Frayn's Noises Off. It's getting a run by the Contemporary Theater Company (at URI's Lippitt Hall through August 21), an unpolished production that nevertheless gets across enough of the hilarity that you're relieved they're not charging by the ha.
Frayn is an English playwright who was inspired to create the 1982 laff riot when he observed that an earlier farce he had written was much funnier when observed from behind-the-scenes. A one-act play named Exits was the result, which was expanded into its current form. It's three acts and more than 2-1/2 hours long, as the nine actors scamper and slam doors in the sex farce within this sex farce — Nothing On, by Robin Housemonger. Despite the length and the intentional repetitions, the effect on us is wider and wider grins as we see the same scenes grow ridiculously to bursting.
Act One shows a dress rehearsal that extends past midnight for an opening night the next evening. They are woefully unprepared. Act Two is a month later, as we get a backstage view of bickering, largely due to badly hidden romantic relationships that cause distracted onstage mishaps. Act Three shows a bored bunch sick of each other, who couldn't care less about the performance we're so familiar with.
The actors are varied in their professional ineptness and character weaknesses. The condescending director is Lloyd Dallas (Stephen Strenio), who frequently refers to his upcoming production of Richard III, which is far worthier of his talents. He's not only fooling around with one of the actresses but with the female assistant stage manager, which ensures trouble before and behind the scenes. Playing a housekeeper is Dotty Otley (Grace Danna), an over-the-hill actress who has invested her life savings in this production. Other characters with distinct traits are Garry Lejeune (Matthew Royality-Lindman), constantly expressing his exasperation but always trailing off his observations with an inarticulate "Uh, you know?" Freddy Fellowes (Nevan Richard) is the epitome of the insecure actor, usually coming up with keen observations or questions but always apologizing for being dim. Fond of Fred and useful as a cool-headed problem-solver is Belinda Blair (Meghan Rose Donnelly).
The requisite pretty, bubble-headed ingénue is Brooke Ashton (Lily Matthews), constantly distracted, so that her usual response to someone calling something to her attention is "Sorry?" Poppy Norton-Taylor (Emma Holliday) is the stage manager and understudy to Brooke, who is competing with her for the affection of Lloyd, the director, and has the advantage of being pregnant by him. The sleep-deprived but multi-faceted stage manager is Timothy Allgood (Jeff Maynard), who triples as an understudy to Freddy and Selsdon.
Noises Off is a favorite of college and high school theater companies, because while top-shelf professionals can turn this brilliantly constructed farce into a rat-a-tat-tat laugh machine, even amateurs can produce enough fun just by not getting in the way of the jokes and sight gags. Here things picked up by Act Two. As farcical momentum swept everyone along, they all loosened up and the timing smoothed. Act Three is choice, since they all are squelching each other's murderous resentments mutely backstage and the confusion includes three burglars onstage at once.
One decision by director Christopher J. Simpson that doesn't work is changing the setting from the English provinces to Rhode Island, having the actors drop their British accents, such as they are, when they are out of their onstage characters. There are too many British cultural references here for that to make sense. On the other hand, around here the politics is pretty farcical.