There’s a point in the second act of 1st Stage’s current production — Michael Frayn’s beloved farce “Noises Off” — when a character inadvertently aligns with a cactus. The moment crowns a sequence of intricate mayhem set in the backstage area of an English playhouse: Frayn’s personages, members of a third-rate touring theater troupe, have been hashing their way through a performance while airing their own festering personal intrigues behind the set and in the wings. Amid the commotion, an egoistic director named Lloyd accidentally sits on the aforementioned plant. In the 1st Stage show, directed by Doug Wilder, the gag is ably timed, and the expression of the exasperated Lloyd (Matthew Pauli) splendidly agonized. Acting, movement, stage business and even lighting come together — making this bit of comedy as sharp as those cactus needles are evidently meant to be.
Not all the antic pandemonium is equally crisp and satisfying. Sometimes, the choreographed havoc looks muddy; the misadventures of Lloyd and his colleagues can register as a lot of breathless running around; and the characterizations aren’t as confident and well-defined as Pauli’s. Still, Wilder and his actors do a creditable job with the gleefully convoluted machinations of Frayn’s script, which many audiences will find all the more piquant because it lovingly lampoons the business of theater.
First produced in 1982, “Noises Off” follows the progress of Lloyd’s hapless actors as they rehearse and, with increasingly disastrous results, tour a ridiculous farce titled “Nothing On.” At 1st Stage, scenic designer Steven Royal helps conjure up this scenario with a suitably fusty-looking country-house-interior set, complete with doors that — in the world of “Nothing On” — generate ample humorous confusion (misplaced clothing, misconstrued identities, income-tax paranoia, etc.). In Acts 1 and 3 of “Noises Off,” we see this set from the front; before Act 2, Royal’s set impressively revolves to show us a backstage area, bristling with plywood.
Prowling through these spaces are Frayn’s tetchy thespian characters, portrayed in deliberately broad strokes by the 1st Stage actors. Dylan Myers displays fine comic timing as an gangly actor named Garry, whose surreptitious romance with an actress, Dotty (Kathleen Akerley, channeling amiable ditziness), falls apart during the “Nothing On” tour, leading to ever-more savage backstage spats. Blair Bowers turns in an amusing, if cartoonish, depiction of Brooke, a dimwitted ingenue who is having an affair with Lloyd — to the great distress of Lloyd’s previous paramour, the assistant stage manager Poppy (a drolly beleaguered-looking Kate Karczewski). Mario Baldessari is a little too hammy as the alcoholic veteran actor Selsdon (frequently seen in burglar attire), but Zachary Fernebok deadpans and blanches capably as Frederick, a performer whose antipathy to violence — it gives him a nosebleed — contributes to the spiraling level of absurdity.
Designer Erin Nugent’s loud ’70s costumes sound the right goofy notes. (Garry’s pink-and-gray plaid suit and floral shirt are particularly choice.) And no production of “Noises Off” could function without several key objects — including multiple plates of sardines, a whiskey bottle or two and, of course, that cactus — which the distracted and revenge-minded characters mislay and misuse. In Wilder’s staging, props designer Cindy Landrum Jacobs rises to the challenge.
Wren is a freelance writer.
by Michael Frayn, directed by Doug Wilder; lighting, Brian S. Allard; dialects, Jane Margulies Kalbfeld; sound, Jason Schlafstein. With Melissa Graves and Jason Glass. About 2 hours and 15 minutes. Tickets $15-$27. Through Dec. 29 at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Rd., Tysons Corner. Visit www.1ststagetysons.org or call 703-854-1856.