Like an uncanny slot-machine triple, Michael Frayn’s Noises Off! has appeared in three local productions in the past six months: Circle Bar B Dinner Theatre in October; Rubicon Theatre Company in February; and now the Theatre Group at Santa Barbara City College. If tendencies on the South Coast are any indication of trends at large, then the 80-year-old English playwright continues to earn more than a few pounds from this critically acclaimed frenetic farce. And there are a couple of reasons why: First, there are the laughs — which were abundantly evident at this SBCC matinee performance. Done right, this is a very funny show. Secondly, I’m guessing there may be a thespian machismo factor; directors and actors want to test their mettle against this notoriously difficult show the way climbers take on Kilimanjaro. And as such, probably every one of them has despaired a week before opening night: “What have I gotten into?!”
But no one at SBCC seems to be asking the question any longer, judging from the aplomb and polish of this opening weekend performance. Although Circle Bar B rustled up some inventive adaptation for playing Noises Off! on a single level (due to its barn-theater limitations), there simply is no way to experience the full madness of this play except with a double-story set, where sight lines can be blocked vertically. Fortunately, SBCC has the resources, venue, and talent (namely scenic designer Patricia Frank) to do this one up right. The gist of Noises Off! is a play-within-a-play, a one-act sex farce called Nothing On, which is repeated on three occasions: first, the technical rehearsal; next, an actual performance a month later; and finally, a performance near the end of the run. The fun is that with every repetition, there is a new overlay of complexity, as the relationships between the actors heat up and devolve. The play is masterfully turned inside out in the second act, when the whole thing is watched from backstage, with ever-accelerating pantomime and slapstick among the offstage actors. The whole thing holds together like gears of a watch, every quick action coordinated tightly with every other.
Polly Firestone Walker is new to the SBCC stage, making her debut as Belinda, an actress with a mediating personality. Sean Jackson is excellent as the flustered and jealous Garry. Raymond Wallenthin returns to the Garvin as the dim and vulnerable Freddy. Janina Mason plays the self-involved, underwear-clad Brooke. Jenna Scanlon is Poppy, the emotionally fragile assistant stage manager. Ed Lee is Tim, the overworked stage manager. Jay Carlander is the short-tempered and caustic director, Lloyd. Ann Dusenberry does fine work with the demanding role of Dotty and nails the British accent — a necessity for the role. And Jon Koons plays the drink-prone and hard-of-hearing Selsdon.
If you like the near-misses of revolving-door farce, then Noises Off! will double your fun by giving you both sides at once. But a word of advice: Avoid sardines for lunch.