<b>CHATEAU RELAXO:</b> The three leads in <i>Women in Jeopardy!</i> unwind with some chardonnay. From left, they are Annabelle Gurwitch, DeeDee Rescher, and Heather Ayers.

With the possible exception of the Salvation Army, every organization in town goes through some kind of holiday-season identity crisis. “What can we do,” directors everywhere must ask themselves, “that only we can do?” The pressure becomes particularly acute for the artistic directors of theaters, who often feel that the range of potential answers is further restricted, until it can seem that the question is really more like “What can we do with The Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol that only we can do?”

Fortunately for Santa Barbara, no such narrowing of the range of choices takes place at Ensemble Theatre Company, where the answer to the holiday programming riddle has traditionally been one of my favorites. It goes something like this: As the city’s only Equity theater, Ensemble can bring in a hilarious comedy, cast it with great actors, and guarantee everyone who comes that at least one of the shows they see between now and New Year’s Eve will be side-splittingly funny. That’s how they handled it last year, with Daniel MacIvor’s The Best Brothers, and that’s what they’ve got planned again, this time with a female-skewing (and skewering) cast and a new comedy by Wendy MacLeod called Women in Jeopardy!

Clearly, word has gotten out among the region’s top performers that the New Vic is a special place to play, and the talent that Jonathan Fox has lined up for Women in Jeopardy! confirms that. Bart DeLorenzo is one of the most honored and busiest stage directors in Los Angeles, with recent credits at virtually every major company in that city, including Odyssey, Rogue Machine, South Coast Rep, Geffen Playhouse, and the company he founded, Evidence Room. He’s also known as a favorite among top Hollywood stars. If you’ve ever wondered who directs Megan Mullally when she’s doing theater, you can stop now, because that would be Bart DeLorenzo.

When I spoke with him last week by phone from his car (where else?) somewhere on the freeways of L.A., DeLorenzo explained the decision to work in Santa Barbara. “I came up last spring and saw Woyzeck, which I thought was great, and I got a good look at the New Vic, and I thought this theater is so beautiful — I want to do something here,” he said. The occasion didn’t take long to arrive, and when it did, it was in the form of a new script from playwright Wendy MacLeod. DeLorenzo paused for emphasis before coming down hard on what he said next: “It was hilarious.”

DeLorenzo appreciated the script’s multigenerational comedy. “It’s a comedy about women of a certain age, and Wendy has written three brilliant roles for actresses who are over 40,” he said. “She’s not doing the predictable jokes, either; in fact, she’s making fun of them, and in the process she’s shedding some light on what society does with them, especially if they are single. She’s also written two great millennial characters for contrast.”

And that’s not all. The plot involves the hyperactive imaginations of two of the women, who, when their friend starts dating a mysterious dentist, begin to believe that he is a serial killer. Between bouts of good old-fashioned kvetching, the pair become amateur sleuths, allowing MacLeod to spice her comic situation with suspense. Heather Ayers returns after giving an outstanding performance in the recent Ensemble production of Sweeney Todd. She will be joined by, among others, the redoubtable Annabelle Gurwitch, a comic force to be reckoned with both onstage and on the page.

The West Coast premiere opens Thursday, December 3, and runs through Sunday, December 20.


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