I was stunned at the opening weekend Saturday matinee crowd at the Fallon House Theatre as Sierra Repertory Theatre began its 2017 season at the historic playhouse. I’ve never experienced an audience so afraid to laugh out loud at a show that warrants huge laughs.

But guffaw you will during “Noises Off,” the dopey farce of a show-within-a-show penned by Michael Frayn that plays in Columbia through May 14. That’s a shorter run for a Sierra Rep show, so make your reservations right now.

This is another one of those Sierra Rep shows that boasts a cast that has no weak link in the chain, and this cast strings together several delightful chains of uproarious laughter in the play that’s being presented by a cast of kooks.

Maybe that’s where the matinee crowd lost itself; maybe the bad play that’s rehearsed in Act 1 was what the audience at the Fallon House thought was the actual play. But I laughed at the horrendous acting of the actors in “Nothing On,” the farce being rehearsed, because the (real life) actors were so immersed in their ridiculous characters. As I laughed occasionally uncontrollably, I just couldn’t get over the fact most of the house was unwilling to return the energy the cast so ably put forth for our entertainment.

The show opens as “Nothing On” opens (during what was supposed to be dress rehearsal, but the production is so shaky the cast is still working on line deliveries and where they have to be and when), as Dotty Otley, an aging actress who’s also made an investment in the touring production, bumbles onto the living room set with a plate of sardines. Becky Saunders is incredible in this role, effectively timing so many of Dotty’s underhanded jabs at castmates that you really have to listen to catch them all. And darned if those sardines don’t steal the show.

Dotty’s playing a maid at the house in the countryside that people believe is vacant because the owners are in Spain avoiding taxes. Louis Lotorto is Frederick Fellowes, the actor playing the homeowner, and Francesca Manzi plays Belinda, who’s playing his wife. They share a few gags as the couple arrives at the house only to find it crawling with interlopers, and both effectively wait to deliver quips that land and then resonate, even minutes later. Lotorto is also especially good at slapstick, but you’ll have to see the show to appreciate his finesse.

Ross Hellwig is fantastic as Gary Lejeune, a space cadet who can’t ever finish a thought out loud. When Hellwig goes on one of Lejeune’s rolls, there are so many missing punctuation marks in his off-kilter sentences it’s a riot, y’know?

As the harried-but-patient-beyond-compare director, Lloyd Dallas, Mark Poppleton is equal parts omnipotent master of everything and impotent lothario. Dallas has got so many of the women in the production strung along that by Act III everything unravels. Be ready for Poppleton’s strong voice to ring out from the audience during Act I, because that’s where the director sits during rehearsals most of the time. (Many in the back of the house at the matinee were visibly irritated that someone would deign to speak from the audience; yes, it was that strange.)

Sierra Rep company favorite Ty Smith is ebulliently charming as Selsdon Mowbray, a purported Shakespearean performer whose sad penchant for anything remotely alcoholic has probably cost him plumb parts in the past. Selsdon plays a burglar who has to pop through a window at a specific cue, but the cast is lucky if that ever happens on time. Smith appears to revel in being so deliciously naughty.

As Brooke, a less-than-bright actress who rarely listens to anything anyone says, Jennifer Kranz almost steals a couple of scenes as Brooke seeks errant contact lenses. But her stretching routine is equally giggle-worthy.

Zoe Swenson-Graham is a treat as the put-upon Polly, a stage manager who can barely keep it together. Swenson-Graham pouts particularly pleasingly and we immediately feel for Polly as she desperately tries to keep track of the screw-ups that happen onstage.

Timothy Portnoy is also very good as Tim, a sleep-deprived stagehand who also must understudy for Selsdon. He also plays a sheik; don’t ask!

That’s the cast and all I’m going to say about the rest of the show is that Act II is pure comedic genius, as this is the act that I think makes “Noises Off” the incredible piece of live theater that it is. After the impressive Dennis Jones set is flipped (stay during the intermissions to see that show), we’re sent backstage, where the cast must keep silent as the show goes on out front. The pantomimed collision of angry actors and lots of silly props is off-the-charts hilarious. Everything is timed to perfection and I laughed even after the set was being returned to the living room.

I want to apologize to this cast; I should have been braver and jumped to my feet to bestow a much-deserved standing ovation upon this production. This is Jones’ final show as the producing director of the troupe he co-founded more than 35 years ago and it’s a wondrous sendoff. He’s got this cast so tightly connected that the show zips along even when no words are used. The rehearsals must have been awfully entertaining.

Go see this hilarious show, unless you don’t like laughing. It’s the most fun you can have indoors with strangers.


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