Audiences who have never seen "Noises Off" should be warned: It's not just funny. It's dangerous.
It's funny to the degree that the audience/victim may become helpless, basically paralyzed for laughter. There is some risk involved. This is a serious matter. (Ironically enough.)
In this SF Playhouse production of Michael Frayn's farce about theater (directed by Playhouse co-founder Susi Damilano), Johnny Moreno is Lloyd, the egomaniacal director of a two-bit stage company producing possibly the world's worst play, itself a sex farce about different couples sharing the same house without knowing it.
In fact, the show-within-a-show during "Noises Off's" first act seems almost suspiciously like an excuse to take a bad comedy and somehow fool everyone's brain "Inception" style into accepting it as a good comedy.
Lloyd's leads can't get it together: One never finishes a sentence (Patrick Russell from the Playhouse's "Red Velvet"), one is a gossip (Nanci Zoppi, brilliant in "She Loves Me"), one is a drunk (Richard Louis James from "Jerusalem"), one has the emotional fortitude of a Faberge egg (Craig Marker from "First Person Shooter"), and as far as the leading lady played by Monique Hafen goes... well, she doesn't go very far.
We spend more than a third of the play watching the cast bungle a tech rehearsal, and it's... fine. Amusing. Not bad. The sprawling set is pretty but a little tacky, and while the cast is all good enough they lack the lightning wit and timing the show wants.
By intermission you're wondering, are they having an off night? Did Damilano not drill everyone hard enough? Is this play just not quite as funny as you remember?
Then comes the second half, when you realize that the first act was just set-up and that in a way you've almost been fooled. Now suddenly we're backstage, watching the characters have a typical mid-show meltdown.
And there are really no words to describe this scene. If there were, we lost them somewhere in the midst of laughing fits. It's possible we won't even able to laugh at the next comedy we see because we used it all up here.
Mind you, almost all of the action -- constant, never-ending action, a ballet of stupid full of entrances, exits, pratfalls, and attempted ax murder -- must happen almost silently, since the characters are supposed to be backstage.
And that's one of the secrets that lets you know the show works: While you sit there in your seat, crushed by giggles, you sometimes feel like you should keep it down. Because we're backstage, you see.
When Moreno berates his actors, you sit up straight and pay attention, as if he's actually the director. When everyone misses cues, you become a touch uncomfortable, as if the real actors are really screwing up, which of course they're not.
(Although, how could anyone tell? Almost a chicken and egg question there...)
Other plays try all sorts of tricks to break the fourth wall or immerse the audience in showy ways. This might be the only one that actually pulls it off.
Almost everyone and everything in "Noises Off" is a tiny, self-contained universe consisting mostly of their own ego, with other people relegated to mere space debris drifting along and occasionally exploding.
That's why Hafen's airhead leading lady character almost takes over the action. She never drops a line, she never misses a cue, and she never needs direction, which eventually turns out to be a bigger problem than everyone's slip-ups. (Just watch, you'll see why.)
She's a sealed container. Everyone else is a leaky sieve. The garden isn't getting watered either way. Watching it all, you can't avoid thinking at least once: "Yep. This is life."
"Noises Off" plays through May 13 at SF Playhouse, 450 Post Street. For tickets and information, call 415-677-9596 or visit SFPlayhouse.com.