DAMAGE CONTROL, Noble Fool Theater Company. Odd as it may sound, successful comedy relies on a strict moral code–even Terry Southern’s antiestablishment comedies of the 60s are built on a consistent worldview. Audiences have to know who to laugh with, who to laugh at, and why. Matt Tiegler in the hilarious first act of his new play, gracefully staged by Patrick Carton, scrupulously follows this rule. We meet–and come to loathe–a materialistic North Shore couple (brilliantly played by Tom Groenwald and Suellen Burton) as they prepare for a party they’re throwing. We also meet two likely candidates for our sympathy: a lonely sister-in-law (Emily Skyle) and an alienated adolescent son (Jake Armstrong).

In a more formulaic comedy, the sister-in-law would find love, the son would triumph symbolically over his annoying father, and the materialist couple would be thoroughly humiliated by the end of the party. But Tiegler is interested in doing more. Unfortunately, by mixing things up in the second act he loses his way. Attempting a series of emotional switches that don’t quite work, he asks us to like characters he’s worked hard to make hateful and to laugh at a likable character’s humiliation. At one point he even asks us to side with the play’s obnoxious central couple when they resort to blackmail. Ultimately everyone seems pretty repulsive–with the result that little of the play’s last 15 minutes seems funny.