Sign Us Up for the British Aristocracy

Shakespeare was important, but real British drama would be nothing without adulterous buffoonery and lots of comely young ladies trotting around in racy undies (though, if we remember those early morning lit classes correctly, Shakespeare also had a lot of comely young ladies in racy undies), and Michael Frayn's masterful two-farces-for-the-price-of-one play Noises Off is as British as it gets. It's right up there with Benny Hill and the late, lamented, after-hours topless-darts competitions (if you've ever pitted your insomnia against the dowdy BBC sitcoms PBS shows on the pretext that they're somehow intellectual, you know exactly what we're talking about) and this delightfully manic Vanguard Theater Ensemble production delivers just the right blend of veddy-proper wit and trousers-round-the-ankles slapstick. If this is that high culture we're always hearing about, sign us up for the upper crust!

Noises Off staggers along with a star-crossed traveling production of the typically British (all simmering sexual tension and unbelievable coincidence) play Nothing On, in which the backstage drama is crazier, louder and much more soused than anything happening in front of a paying audience—and naturally, we get to see it all. Pompous, pill-popping director, Lloyd Dallas (a nicely smarmy Eddie Nickerson), captains this slowly sinking ship, valiantly steering a cast of Brit comedy stalwarts (prima donnas all: the aging theater dowager, the pouty sexpot, the drunken old man, the emasculated nebbish, and so on. Really, refer back to Benny Hill if you need a crash course in these archetypes) toward something resembling a legitimate theater production. Of course, it's a disaster waiting to happen, but as orchestrated by Vanguard director Wade Williamson, it's something closer to poetry in motion.

This cast and crew absolutely nails the daunting and demanding rhythm of this technically complex play. In a production in which everything explodes at once, it takes only one misstep to send farce spiraling into joke's-on-us tragedy (as amply demonstrated by the cast of the play within the play, Nothing On). But Williamson maneuvers this ensemble with admirable aplomb. Vanguard vets and newcomers alike turn out no-punches-pulled hilarious performances and present a production as finely sophisticated as topless darts and as titillatingly boffo as anything Shakespeare ever penned. Or was that the other way around? It's funny, it's saucy, it's out of control, and it never lets up for a second. Benny Hill would be proud. Maybe Shakespeare, too.

Noises Off at the Curtis Theater, 1 Civic Center Dr., Brea, (714) 990-7722. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. $10-$17. Through June 10.

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