Misery Loves Comedy
If ever there was a time we need a good laugh, it’s now! With tensions growing in our country, with the constant drama in Washington, and with all our struggles to stay focused on our work and our lives, comedy may be an answer. Maybe it’s the only answer. As Woody Allen put it, “If we couldn’t laugh, we’d have to kill ourselves.” Or as Stephen Colbert says, “You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time. If you’re laughing, I defy you to be afraid.” So, this season, with Noises Off, we aim to fulfill the first leg of our mission at San Francisco Playhouse, “to uplift our spirits.”
What is farce made of? As Kierkegaard put it, “behind great comedy is the deepest suffering.” And Noises is perhaps the crowning achievement in farcical misery. We humans are addicted to disaster; a good conspiracy theory, a good end of the world film. And in farce, the catastrophes line up like the dominoes in “chaos theory,” where a disruption in one field inevitably leads to disruption in another. But luckily, unlike the inevitable unraveling of misdeeds in tragedy, farce graces us with the gift of laughter. As Michael Frayn puts it, “things go wrong, and they go wrong in a very complex and logically constructed way. One disaster leads to another, and then those two disasters lead to a third which is the essence of classical farce.” We all face the fear that we might not be able to go on. Noises Off blesses us with the chance to laugh in the face of that fear.
But Noises is considered by many theatre historians to be not only a great farce but a great play. What sets it above the lessors of its kind is Mr. Frayn’s lifelong obsession with “knowing the unknowable.” His other great play, Copenhagen, explores this same theme. And in Noises Off, he takes the traditional Feydeau sex farce with all its slamming doors, missing clothes, and obligatory stereotypes one step farther. By turning it all around in Act II, we are blessed to see behind the façade, behind the misery of the caricatures in Act I to the misery of the actors playing them, which then exponentially compounds the hilarious misery of the third act. It is this meta-theatricality of Noises, its peek inside the “unknowable,” that gives it an existential edge that lifts it beyond its genre.