I can’t be the only one who rents movies from the so-called comedy section, only to find that they don’t make me laugh. And by “laugh” I mean a series of involuntary chest spasms accompanied by staccato expulsions of air from my lungs and a broad, genuine smile. Snickering, snorting, and choking on popcorn kernels doesn’t count.
Thing is, I think of myself as having a fairly robust sense of humor, so I find it perplexing that I can sit through an entire Ben Stiller movie and never crack a smile. Likewise, I can watch an entire Jay Leno monologue, or comedy bit by Jimmy Fallon, and not experience a single interruption to my breathing pattern. I might think, “that’s clever,” or “that might be funny if I had a few drinks in me,” but if you had a camera trained on my face it would look like I was watching the History channel. On D-Day.
The same is often true of plays. If I’m watching one of those drawing-room comedies populated by lovable eccentrics with sing-songy British accents, I can sometimes feel my will to live being slowly sucked away. There’s nothing worse than watching a play that’s supposed to be funny but isn’t. Talk about torture. If Dick Cheney had any sense, he would have forced prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay to sit through a community theater production of Tartuffe .
Which brings me to Joking Envelope’s production of Tom Poole’s Safe as Houses , currently playing at the Theatre Garage. Judging by the number of aforementioned involuntary chest spasms I experienced during this play, I can honestly say it is one of the funniest plays I have ever seen—and the last time I bothered to count, my butt has been parked at more than 1,500 plays. (Sad, but true.) So trust me when I say that Safe as Houses will make you laugh—brutally, scathingly, relentlessly so.
But the great thing about Safe as Houses is that it isn’t funny in a jokey, ha-ha, oh-so-witty way—it’s funny in a dark, twisted, perverse way that makes everything in it that much more humorous. The play involves a real-estate agent (played by Chris Carlson) who has been trying for years to sell a house in which a triple-murder/suicide has occurred. Unfortunately, the agent’s sales pitch is complicated by the fact that the house itself seems to be situated uncomfortably close to the gates of hell. Just going to the bathroom in this place makes people want to slit their wrists, and no one has ever had the courage to go all the way to the top of the stairs—because that’s tantamount to suicide. Some houses give people bad vibes; this one makes them want to put a bullet through their head. Hence, no buyers—that is, until a woman named Darla (Mo Perry) shows up with a bag full of cash and head full of secrets.
Playwright Tom Poole both wrote and directed this production, a double-duty that doesn’t always yield great results. But in this case, the play is stronger for it. The rhythm of the dialogue is pitch-perfect, and the laughs roll one right after the other as Darla weighs the house’s pros and cons (of which there are many), and the desperate real-estate agent slowly unravels. Layered beneath the play’s black humor is also some finely tuned commentary on the stultifying nature of contemporary American life and what it means to really live, but that doesn’t spoil the fun.
A short plea to all you Ivey Award judges: Please go see Chris Carlson’s performance as Charles Glenfiddich, the aforementioned “real estate agent of last resort.” One of the reasons this play is so hilarious is that Carlson’s every move, down to the last twitch of his eyebrows, is absolutely brilliant. His performance is a tour de force of comedic acting, which is one of the hardest things to do well onstage. He’s playing a real character too, one that pretty much goes through hell and back to make the sale. Mo Perry is also great as the increasingly creepy Darla, and rounding out the cast are Joseph Scrimshaw and Anna Sundberg, who play a hapless couple the agent has hired as shills to pretend they’re interested in buying the house.
If you like your comedies smart and dark, Safe as Houses is by far the smartest, darkest comedy to come along in a long time. Someone ought to turn it into a movie. But if that happens, I have only one request: please do not cast Ben Stiller.
Oh, and hurry, Safe as Houses only has a three-week at the Theatre Garage run through Apr. 17.