by Gail M. Burns, July 2007
What do you get when you put a young British sculptor, his ditsy blonde fiancée, his sultry brunette mistress, the blonde’s spit-and-polish military father, two neighbors - a flamboyantly gay antiques dealer and a tee totaling spinster – a deaf multi-millionaire art dealer, and an elderly electrician together in a London loft and turn out the lights? You get Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy and, in the Barrington Stage production, a whole lot of laughs.
Yes, Black Comedy, which has been making the rounds of college and community theatres since 1965, is a safe and light-weight choice for BSC, but considering that they opened their Main Stage season with the teenage-angst-ridden West Side Story and will close it with lots of Russian hand-wringing in Uncle Vanya, selecting a simple, silly middle show was not such a bad idea. Black Comedy is fast and funny and a real crowd-pleaser.
The gimmick here is that when the stage is dark the characters act like the lights are on, and when it is lit they act like they are in total darkness. We get to watch them stumble around in the “dark” on Adrian W. Jones’ set which contains just enough walls, doors, and stairs to present a serious challenge. Different people are, and aren’t aware of who is in the room. The valuable antique furniture and breakable knick-knacks, furtively “borrowed” from the collector across the hall in order to impress the fiancee’s father and the art dealer, have to be swapped again for the sculptor’s thrift shop junk. The spinster gets hold of a bottle of liquor and won’t let go. The mistress has good fun at the expense of the fiancée and her father. The electrician is mistaken for the millionaire art dealer (they both have the same outrageous German accent) who is coming to appraise the sculptor’s work. Did I mention there is a trap door in the middle of the floor?
This is finely tuned physical comedy and director Lou Jacob has assembled a gifted cast each of whom copes with the darkness in a unique and hilarious way. By far the funniest as Nell Mooney as the hopeless blonde fiancée Carol Melkett, who half-hulas half-swims across the stage, her psychedelic mini-dress swaying along with her hips. Yes, Jacob and his design team have left Black Comedy smack in the middle of the 1960’s, where it belongs, which allows for a colorful set and extremely mini costumes for Mooney and the curvaceous Ginifer King, who plays the lusty mistress, Clea. While Beth Dixon’s repressed spinister Miss Furnival is decently covered, even her tweeds sport a hot turquoise hue. Ilona Somogyi is responsible for the characters’ Carnaby Street style, or, in the case of the Colonel and Miss Furnival, lack thereof.
Mooney and King make excellent sparring partners, making Carol and Clea distinctly different women with their own ways of coping with the attentions and betrayals of young Brindsley “Brin” Miller (Brian Ayers) who seems to not know who he wants to woo. Ayers works up a sweat moving people and furniture to and fro. He handles all his maneuvers and pratfalls with Jack-Tripper-esque aplomb, except for his head-long tumble down the stairs which, at the performance I attended, he executed in painfully safe and well-choreographed slow-motion. Not that pretending to fall down the stairs is easy, one false move and - SPLAT - there goes your leading man in the middle of the performance.
Ayers lacks that puppy-dog cuteness that might make him more sympathetic, and certainly the one major example of Brin’s sculpture downstage left does not make you inclined to root for his success as an artist. But Ayers gives an athletic and uproarious performance, even if you don’t end up thinking too much of Brin by the final black out.
Mark H. Dold is very funny as the wronged neighbor and antiques dealer Harold Gorringe (who says there is no rhyme for orange?) who may have a relationship with Brin himself. When a priceless Buddha statue gets smashed Dold’s reaction is, well, priceless.
Gerry Bamman is the very model of modern British Colonel, who, despite his rigid posture and uptight morals, has a remarkably fluid encounter with an unexpected rocking chair. Dixon’s Miss Furnival also has a close encounter with a chaise lounge after breaking with her Baptist minister father’s teaching. Dixon is the image of a faded old maid with her coke bottle glasses and sensible shoes, although her head-shot in the program reveals her to be an attractive young woman (its called acting.)
We see less of the two German gentlemen – Gordon Stanley as Schuppanzigh, employee of London Electric, and Robert Lydiard as Georg Bamberger, the aurally challenged millionaire art collector on whom all of Brin and Carol’s hopes for a posh future ride – mainly because they both vanish down the aforementioned trap door at unexpected moments.
Jones’ two story set serves the play splendidly, although it looks a little big to be the London loft of a starving sculptor. We Yanks don’t realize how very much more compact homes are in Britain. It might have been fun to let this cast loose is slightly tighter quarters, giving them a chance for more gasp-inducing near-misses and less room to gallop, kick, crawl, slide, stumble, and hula.
The audience I attended with had a great time gasping at close calls, sighing when disaster was avoided, and cheering for clever catches. If you go, and you should, you will too. While there are some racy costumes, especially on King’s Clea who shares a few passionate embraces with Brin, this show really is suitable for all ages. Barrington Stage does a good job of making their shows affordable for families with free tickets for kids ages 5-13 when accompanied by an adult and half-price tickets for students 14-21, everyday but Saturday. There are matinee discounts for seniors.
The Barrington Stage Company production of Black Comedy runs through August 4 at their Main Stage located at 30 Union Street in Pittsfield. This laugh-packed romp runs a brisk 90-minutes with no intermission. For tickets, call the box office at (413) 236-8888 (Pittsfield); (413) 528-8888 (South County) or visit www.barringtonstageco.org.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007