Noises Off seems such a dependable vehicle for laughs. After all, the conceit of the play-within-a-play is that things are always going wrong -- so if the actors mess up at messing up, who's to tell? In truth, Michael Frayn's 1982 comedy is rather trickier than that. But the current Stage 62 production pulls it off when it counts.
The long first act -- an interminable and frankly awful dress rehearsal of the play within the play, Nothing On -- is supposed to be full of botched entrances and lost lines. But it's top-heavy under the weight of its expository (if necessary) verbosity.
The surprise candy center is the physical comedy of the second act. The story finds Nothing On, more than a month into its dreary tour, not much improved from its rehearsal, with more drama seething offstage than polished comedy on. Indeed, backstage is where the action is, with the richest laughs coming from the fast-paced pantomime of the players switching from primary to secondary characters. Here, the Stage 62 production, directed by David Grande, shines -- especially in the balletic timing of a complicated bit involving a bottle, an ax and a few supporting props.
By the third act, set some two months later, the lightweight Nothing On has completely disintegrated into unintended farce -- exactly as Frayn intends. The laughs come fast and furious, somewhat cheaply if not as deeply as before. But it sends out the audience on a good chuckle.
At nearly two-and-a-half-hours, Noises Off is long for a comedy. Add the demands of a large multi-doored set that must be completely turned around for Act II, then back again for Act III, and Judy Cerra's production is huge and ambitious.
Kudos to company members who helped to build the set as well as act on it: Rob James as Nothing On director and Noises Off set designer; Lynnetta Miller as his much-put-upon assistant stage manager; Chris Rotz as the overworked stage manager; Chris Martin as an insecure thespian; Kim Martin as the seasoned trouper; and Leo Stankus as a stereotypically alcoholic old actor. The fruit of their efforts may not be perfect, but it is still satisfyingly funny.
Noises Off continues through Sun., May 17. Stage 62 at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library Music Hall, Carnegie. 412-429-6262 or www.stage62.com