Michael Frayn's 1982 Noises Off is a three-layer confection of a comedy that looks at the stage itself from three perspectives. The cream filling of Act 2 was perhaps the tastiest in the University of Vermont Department of Theatre production, but every morsel was a treat.
The audience settled in to find a well-appointed living room set, with a staircase to a gallery along the second floor. The presence of eight doors and a picture window was a telltale sign: A surplus of entrances can only mean farce, because those doors were meant to be slammed.
The lights then came up on what was certainly a farce, and one of stupendous vapidity. The play-within-a-play is called Nothing On, but before the trysts and room mix-ups can get started, an actor breaks character and checks with the director on when, exactly, she should take the plate of sardines offstage. We're watching a tech rehearsal, not a performance. And these actors, all of them struggling to keep their hand props straight, let alone their lines, aren't remotely ready for opening night in 24 hours.
Frayn constructed a farce of a farce and, in doing so, produced an homage to the form. It's also a tribute to the sometimes-pitiable actors who nightly overemote on stages from Britain's regional theaters to our own semipro and community playhouses. The piece is a scrapbook of bad acting, but the portraits are affectionately drawn.
Headlining in the fictional cast is Dotty Ottley (Elizabeth Callahan), a former TV star who's in over her head when it comes to remembering whether it's sardines or a newspaper she's to pick up. The earnest Frederick Fellowes (Ellis Burgin) is an actor constantly apologizing for blowing his lines and in need of some kind of motivation for his simplest moves. The director (Jeff Renaud) attempts to oblige, but he's pretty well given up on whipping this crew into the crack team needed to pull off a farce.
The cast includes an ingénue (Sarah Kolozsvary) whose theatrical training consists of wearing sexy undergarments while striking affected poses, and a would-be Shakespearean actor (Christian DeKett) who can't stay sober long enough to make his entrances on cue. The doltish young leading man (Peter Hiebert) is so inarticulate, he's probably incapable of understanding his character's lines. One indefatigable actress (Ceara Ledwith) has been onstage since she was 4 and now serves as the company gossip.
To these worthies, Frayn adds a nervous stage manager (Luke Lakea) and a high-strung, heartbroken assistant stage manager (Kaitie Bessette).
These hapless fictional actors are prone to waddling with their trousers at their ankles or crawling like commandos to try unobtrusively to replace a lost prop. The gags are broad comedy, but Frayn has constructed true characters. Buffoons they may be, but they sweetly embody the foibles to which actors are prey.
The result is laugh-out-loud funny. Thursday's audience offered up guffaws, not chuckles. Hitting such peaks takes a combination of the script's wild humor, the performers' infectious zeal, the production's impressive set and director Sarah Carleton's tight choreography.
After the first act's hilariously botched technical rehearsal, the set is spun around, and we watch from a fully realized backstage. The company is a month into its tour, pausing only briefly from preoccupations with personal jealousies to keep the wheezing farce going onstage.
A month and a half later, the third act has us watching a thoroughly bedraggled performance at the end of the tour — this time from the audience's point of view. A bunch of third-rate actors desperately trying to cover various stage catastrophes is the essence of truly great farce. It's Frayn's master class.
In UVM's production, Carleton had the performers carry the bad acting a little further than necessary to make the point. The wooden performances in the rehearsal were intentionally deadly, giving us a bit too much of the bad-play experience. And with acoustics that weren't good enough to let us hear what was spoken upstage and a pace that was uniformly breakneck, the first act was funny, but not transcendently so.
The UVM performance took off in Act 2. The intrigues of backstage romances and rivalries had reached a boiling point, and now the cast was playing the richer characters of troubled actors instead of the flat roles in a horrendous sex farce. Act 2 is almost all physical comedy and pantomime, and Carleton marshaled her troops with precision. The actors carried off hilarious stunts and worked together with the panache of a circus act. Defining the maxim that the show must go on, the actors had to interrupt their squabbles to make their entrances, in the nick of time.
The set was magnificent. Jeff Modereger made use of the Royall Tyler Theatre's height and gave the house solidity with a carpeted staircase, rich wallpaper and wainscoting. The doors deserved their own curtain call.
The lighting by John B. Forbes had the bright intensity that comedy requires, the better to show off garish 1970s costumes designed by Martin Thaler. The men had collars that just wouldn't quit, and Thaler didn't spare the polyesters and paisleys for the women.
The student cast was energetic and maintained Carleton's exhilarating pace. In Thursday's performance, the performers pushed hard, as if still dazzled by pulling off this elaborate entertainment. All that was missing was carving out that brief, weightless moment before a gag explodes, the little grace note that comes from rock-solid confidence. But this cast delivered a rollicking rendition of a very funny play.
Frayn has built a kaleidoscope to aim outward, inward and sideways on the subject of theater itself. There's no funnier behind-the-scenes peek at the joys and mishaps of hamming it up.
Noises Off, by Michael Frayn, directed by Sarah Carleton, produced by the University of Vermont Department of Theatre. Closed February 28. Royall Tyler Theatre, UVM, Burlington.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Double Play"