REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
For the first ten minutes of Peter Shaffer’s knockabout farce, Black Comedy, the stage is dark, as engaged Londoneers Brindsley Miller and Carol Melkett get ready to receive wealthy German art collector Georg Bamberger, who they hope will purchase Brindlsey’s latest modern sculpture. But a blown fuse plunges their home into darkness, and that’s when the lights on the stage finally go up. Confused? Well, the story of the anticipated sale of Brindsley’s work is merely the MacGuffin in Black Comedy, something only the characters care about. What’s important to the audience is the show’s topsy-turvy lighting gimmick, one that gives Black Comedy its name: a riotous jumble of mistaken identities, complex blocking, and side-splitting slapstick. If everyone in the cast stays healthy, the show will run through February 14 at the Ojai Art Center Theater.
Peter Shaffer’s plays include such stage classics as Amadeus and Equus, but in Black Comedy, he pulls out all the stops in writing a masterful work of classic roll-in-the-aisles visual comedy, utilizing the novel gimmick that is reflected by the show’s title. The fact that nearly the entire show takes place in pitch blackness is an ingenious device that justifies the comic bedlam that goes on stage throughout much of the play. This results in a special challenge for the actors, who not only have to hit their marks, but also to make the audience believe that they are actually groping their way through a pitch-black room, “accidentally” bumping into objects, tripping over others, and mistaking one person for another.
Black Comedy takes place in London in 1965, at the height of the so-called “swinging sixties,” when the Beatles, James Bond, and Twiggy were the hot pop culture icons of the day. Set designer Kenny Dahle has created a fabulous set with kitschy art objects and garish furniture befitting the period. Most prominent of all is the living room wallpaper, adorned with a pattern of enlarged eyes that serves as a metaphor for the sight-challenged shenanigans that pervade the script.
The first ten minutes of the play are set in darkness as Brindsley and Carol’s dialog serve as exposition, which concludes when Carol plugs in a phonograph and puts on a record of military marches that her father, a colonel in the armed forces who they are expecting to visit, especially favors. This blows a fuse and the house lights immediately go up, indicating that the lights have gone out in the apartment. The obvious solution to this is to find temporary illumination while waiting for a repairman to come, but Shaffer’s skillful script explains how Brindsley and Carol must foil any attempts at lighting matches, candles or flashlights by any of the visitors who stumble onto the scene. One of these reasons is that they have stolen their gay neighbor Harold’s stylish furniture for the purpose of impressing Bamberger, and don’t want Harold to find out. In Black Comedy‘s alternate universe, any time something is lit on stage, the house lights dim, then go back up after the light is extinguished. (At one point, Harold, who is excellently played by Antonio Royuela, tries to light a match but it breaks in his hand. The house lights obediently went down a notch, despite the fact that no flame was lit. Credit to the cast for not letting this throw them.)
“Keeping our eyes fixed is a definite challenge,” said Brittany Danyel, who plays Brindsley’s Cockney, vengeance-seeking ex-girlfriend Clea in the show. Danyel said that the process took weeks of studious rehearsal to make it believable, and so far, it has worked beautifully, although not without incident. In Saturday night’s performance, Cecily O. Hendricks, who plays Carol, tore a stocking and suffered a painful rug burn after “tripping” on the stage. She continued the performance despite noticeable blood oozing from her left knee through the ripped stocking. On opening night, Paul Sulzman, who plays Brindsley, cut his hand, and everything he subsequently touched on the set left a noticeable blood stain. In addition to all the tripping, stumbling, and bumping, there’s also the everpresent threat of injury caused by an open trap door, which veteran performer Bill Spellman, playing the hard-of-hearing Bamberger, has to tumble into toward the end of the play.
While waiting for their art collector “Godot” to come, Brindsley and Carol also have to deal with appearances by their two neighbors: the volatile Harold, whose furniture Brindsley swapped for his own, and spinster Miss Furnival (played with restrained relish by Nancy Jane Smeets), a teetotaler who, of course, HAS to be the recipient of the wrong beverage in the dark, and proceeds to get snockered. There are a variety of classic sight gags in the storyline, but the best involves Brindsley attempting to replace all the pieces of furniture he “borrowed” without anyone in the room knowing he is doing so. The slapstick that ensues is hysterically funny, and Sulzman proves his adeptness at physical comedy as he removes his boots and tries to negotiate his way in the dark (though the audience can see every move he makes) as quietly as possible. David Newcomer has one priceless moment when he returns to a chair he was sitting in, only to find himself unexpectedly plopping down on a rocking chair, which promptly overturns backward, resulting in Newcomer executing a neat somersault.
The furniture exchange scene is like the unrestrained anarchy of Act II in Noises Off, in which pantomime and pratfalls tumble over one another, resulting an avalanches of laughter from the audience. To cover for this, Shaffer has all the characters excepting the increasingly frantic Brindsley, engage in meaningless small talk of no consequence, which allows the audience to concentrate on trying to figure out how the heck Brindsley is going to remove a sofa from the room with two people sitting on it, chatting away. This was a priceless sequence that one hoped to have gone on longer.
Another element of Black Comedy that is brilliantly constructed is the introduction of each character into the story. Initially alone in their apartment, Brindsley and Carol are soon joined by Carol’s father, the Colonel, and then, successively, the two neighbors. Each time a new character is introduced, it comes at a point where the action has receded somewhat, like waves on a shoreline, only to be ratcheted up again as each new addition adds another dimension of confusion and threat of exposure. Eventually a German-accented repairman, Schuppanzigh, delightfully played by John Medeiros, shows up, and Brindsley and Carol take him for being the wealthy art collector. Medeiros, a brilliant character actor, plays his part perfectly, and is soon removed from sight through the trap door in the floor, where, ostensibly, Schuppanzigh will repair the burned out fuse.
When Clea (Danyel, in a sexy, seething performance) arrives unannounced on the scene, the danger is magnified as Brindsley, in addition to effecting the furniture switcheroo, now has to also keep his fiancée from finding out about their prior relationship. The genius of the script is like a multi-dimensional chess board; too many conflicts are being dealt with at one time, and eventually, like a time bomb, the whole thing is bound to blow up.
For director Richard Camp, Black Comedy is a personal favorite since it was the first Broadway show he ever saw, during a college field trip.The original 1965 production ran for a year and helped establish the stage careers of such luminaries as Albert Finney and Maggie Smith. As Camp describes it, the show is a tour de farce and it is evident that much care has gone into the minor details of the production. Kudos also go to costume designer Mary E. Crane, lighting designer Claire Cleary, and producer Stuart Crowner for helping put all the pieces together.
Black Comedy runs for one extended act, which is a good thing, because by the end of the show, I found my face hurting from all the constant laughter.
Black Comedy plays at the Ojai Art Center Theater through February 14. For dates, showtimes, and ticket information, see the VC On Stage Calendar.