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If you’re familiar with Washington’s Church Street Theater, tucked away as it is on an unassuming, tree-lined residential street less than a block from neighborhood favorites JR.’s and Annie’s, you know this. The brick-walled theater has played host to many fantastic – sometimes shockingly so – productions.
It was, after all, not long ago that The Keegan Theatre, Church Street’s resident company, surprised everyone with its dynamic, Helen Hayes Award-winning production of Rent. In that space they have danced at Lughnasa, tilted at windmills with Don Quixote and even made a go of bringing The Graduate‘s swinging ’60s vibe to life.
But Keegan has now, for God knows what reason, allowed a cast of barely competent, ill-tempered, hammy English actors to lay waste to their onstage home.
These ”professionals” are not only barely able to contain the rage they clearly feel for one another long enough to make it through the first act (except for the utterly baffling beer commercial bimbo Brooke Ashton who doesn’t appear to know there are other actors on the stage), they manage to make Robin Housemonger’s already awful play “Nothing On” nothing much to talk about.
Unless, of course, you decide to spend your time chatting with your fellow captives in the audience about the foul odor wafting from the stage. It’s not, as you may initially suspect, the smell of the ridiculously numerous plates of tinned sardines sliding their way through every scene, it’s the abysmal acting.
Should the cast of “Nothing On” make it through the remainder of the tour without killing themselves (or inspiring their audience to commit acts of violence), it will be nothing less than a miracle.
Director Lloyd Dallas, the man responsible for bringing this flailing failure of a farce to the boards, needn’t delude himself into believing that London is far enough away to rid himself of the stench left behind by this unmitigated disaster of a touring company. We know who to blame. And, we also know who we should be roundly praising.
You see, that this battling troupe of Brits is so very bad means the folks at Keegan Theatre are incredibly good. Confused? Well let’s try and clear things up – and dish out some well-earned praise along the way.
“Nothing On” is the play-within-a-play being performed very, very badly in Michael Frayn’s intentionally self-destructing door slammer Noises Off. The utterly undone troupe of second-rate English thespians is made up of an ensemble of first-class Keegan Theatre actors doing great at being awful.
The play unfolds over the course of three performances handed out in three acts. In the first act we meet the cast of Nothing On, a collection of individuals so polite and gracious to one another and their exasperated director – who wants no one to forget that he is far too talented to be involved in this play – it’s almost painful.
The second we’re brought backstage (courtesy George Lucas’s ingeniously devised set and the strong backs of the stage crew) to watch our actors begin their utterly entertaining descent into backbiting, broken hearts and physical assault.
It’s only in the third act of the play that we see the play within the play played out in front of an audience that is real play’s audience who, for the show’s purposes, also play the fake play’s audience.
Charlotte Akin is Dottie Otley, the troupe’s senior member and the one with the most at stake. She’s financed “Nothing On’s” tour and stands to lose a good deal more than her investment should it fail. Akin is absolutely brilliant in the role and manages to steal the spotlight whenever she’s onstage. Great timing and a wonderful spontaneity make her performance a sidesplitting joy to watch.
Akin is joined by the physically fearless Michael Innocenti as the hapless Garry Lejeune, Brianna Letourneau as the delightfully clueless Brooke Ashton and the perfectly lovely Susan Marie Rhea as the ”show-must-go-on-even-if-it-kills-us-or-we-kill-each-other” Belinda Blair.
We also have the good fortune of watching Jim Jorgensen suffer beautifully and comically as Dallas, a director who may actually have the distinction of being the individual who bears the least responsibility for the nightmare we watch unfolding onstage.
And by ”nightmare” we’re of course referring to the play within the play, not the play we’re watching that’s the real play.
The director of the real play, Mark A. Rhea, will most certainly not have to go into hiding in London after this production. He’s crafted a finely tuned show that hums briskly and surely along.
Keegan Theatre’s decision to punch up the summer season with a bit of horseplay and good humor (including the quirky double playbills) is as smartly executed as the show itself. Rhea and company’s Noises Off is entirely spot on.