The rights to Michael Frayn’s 1982 play Noises Off were released late last year, with every theater company and their brother in a hurry to get their hands on it. The third in a marathon round of productions in the area, The Theatre Group at Santa Barbara City College’s version is surely one of the best you’ll see, with a masterfully built two-story revolving set and brilliant comic performances by the entire ensemble of nine.
The material is strong to start with, including all the necessary elements of a classic British sex farce — clandestine lovers sneaking around an old country house, slamming doors, mysterious figures, and a beautiful young woman in lingerie — all done as a clever play-within-a-play, where the actors are involved in as much personal drama as their characters.
Act 2 is brilliant, where we see everyone backstage silently carrying on great dramatic confrontations while the actors speak their lines onstage.
Under veteran director Rick Mokler’s expert leadership, the cast magnificently conveys the quirks and foibles of a group of amateur actors, which become magnified to horrific proportions as the chaos of their production swirls out of control.
Ed Lee does a nice job portraying put-upon Stage Manager Tim as mainly exhausted, though occasionally edging into hysteria.
As harried Assistant Stage Manager, Poppy, Jenna Scanlon is hilarious with her wide-eyed looks of confusion and desperate efforts to hold it all together.
Jon Koons is wonderful as the doddering Selsdon, who drinks and drives his fellow cast members to distraction as they try to keep bottles away from him.
Polly Firestone Walker is Belinda, the polished and pulled-together actress who does her best to take care of everyone as they fall apart. One of the best moments in the play is her desperately pantomimed dialogue with herself backstage in Act 2.
As Frederick, the fussy yet insecure actor, Raymond Wallenthin plays it with just the right blend of humor and pathos. As silly as he is, you can’t help but feel for him.
Janina Mason is Brooke, the airheaded ingénue who spends the majority of the show in pink lingerie. If you happened to see Avenue Q at the Garvin last year, you will remember her in shapeless overalls as Gary Coleman and marvel at her versatility. Her genius here is portraying her character’s absolute inability, or unwillingness, to improvise, staunchly sticking to her lines and pacing no matter how the show is unraveling around her and the other actors are scrambling to cover misplaced props and dropped lines.
As Dotty, the celebrated TV actress playing the housekeeper, Ann Dusenberry is delightfully broad and brash, coping with an endless array of business to do with plates of sardines.
Sean Jackson excels as Garry, the actor who is often at a loss for words, filling in with extravagant hand gestures and facial expressions to get his point across. He also does some spectacular physical comedy involving a flight of stairs.
As Lloyd, the director who in turn wheedles, bullies, and placates them, Jay Carlander is impressive. He manages to depict a man who starts out believing he’s in control but slowly has to give up that illusion, eventually conceding to utter ineptitude.
The spectacular set was designed by Patricia Frank, who oversaw its creation by SBCC theater students. All are to be commended for this incredible accomplishment.
A suggestion: Before the play, read the glossary of British terms in your program. Many lines will be all the funnier for understanding the slang.
Noises Off runs one more weekend at SBCC’s Garvin Theatre, through this Saturday. Be sure to catch this while it’s still on. For tickets, call 805.965.5935 or click here.
— Justine Sutton is a Santa Barbara freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer. The opinions expressed are her own.