An inspired concept and some virtuoso physical comedy make the first two-thirds of Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy a one-of-a-kind Glendale Centre Theatre treat before the laughter gets derailed by a jarring second-act tonal shift and some unexpected (and decidedly unpleasant) character twists.
An opening scene played out in complete darkness (or at least as complete as exit signs will allow) has 20something London sculptor Brindsley Miller (Chance Dean) and his debutante fiancée Carol Melkett (Ava Scott) preparing for the twin arrivals of Carol’s imperious father Colonel Melkett (Paul Michael Nieman) and of millionaire German art collector Georg Bamberger (Don Woodruff), the former to determine whether Brin meets Daddy’s high standards, the latter to check out (and possibly purchase) some of the starving artist’s work.
To better impress his two visitors, Brin has temporarily replaced his flat’s bargain-basement living-room furniture with the far more stylish Regency, Queen Anne, and Wedgewood accoutrements owned by out-of-town neighbor Harold Gorringe (Ted Wells).
Then, in a stroke of bad luck likely to thwart Brin’s best-laid plans, the power goes out and the lights go on.
That’s right. In Black Comedy’s topsy-turvy world, dark is light and light is dark, and indeed most of the play’s hijinks get played out in brightly illuminated “blackness” as characters grope their way around and, in the play’s most inspired turn, have an increasingly frazzled Brin attempting in absolute “darkness” to move the unexpectedly returned Harold’s furniture back to his neighboring flat and Brin’s own ratty lot back into his.
Rarely if ever has physical shtick provoked as much glee as Black Comedy’s does under Zoe Bright’s zippy direction, particularly as performed to razor-sharp perfection by a castfull of absolutely terrific physical comedians, each one finding his or her own unique technique for maneuvering about in the dark, Dean in particular doing bravura work that includes a fall-down-stairs worthy of its own round of applause.
Things start to get problematic upon the arrival of Brin’s ex (or possibly not-so-ex) girlfriend Clea (Tayah Howard), whom the otherwise engaged sculptor must keep hidden from a fiancée under the mistaken impression that Brin and Clea’s four-year relationship lasted a mere three months.
Not only does Clea’s sudden arrival ask us to see the previously sympathetic Brin in an unattractive new light, Shaffer’s script has teetotaler-turned-accidentally-tipsy neighbor Miss Furnival (Georgan George) going off on a bizarre drunken rant later outdone by an even more hysterical Harold, transformed from amusing gay neighbor to sexually repressed viper.
Fortunately, Black Comedy works more often than not, particularly as performed by an expert ensemble of GCT regulars and newbies.
Dean’s leading man chops are matched by his physical comedy expertise, and native-Brit charmer Scott is so girl-next-door lovely that it’s hard not to feel bad for Carol when she learns the truth about Brin.
Nieman plays Colonel Melkett with just the right bombast, the more George’s Miss Furnival imbibes, the funnier she gets, Wells makes for an amusingly theatrical Harold, and Howard is a delight as Clea, and never more so than when pretending to be Brin’s Cockney maid.
As for Kyle Kelley, the GCT treasure’s arrival as Schuppanzigh adds a delicious mistaken identity twist midway through, and Woodruff’s 11:45 appearance as Bamberger entertains as well.
Black Comedy’s upstairs-downstairs scenic design is a winner, though the absence of a script-dictated trap door detracts from what would otherwise be a show-stopping last-minute bit. Angela Manke’s costumes are colorful 1960s treats. Alex Mackyol’s sound design provides expert amplification and some era-setting ‘60s hits. An uncredited Brian Danner of Sword Fights, Inc. earns pratfall choreography kudos as well.
Black Comedy is produced by Tim Dietlein. Nathan Milisavljevich is set carpenter. JC Wendel is set painter. Paul Reid is stage manager.
So much of Black Comedy hits that mark that it’s a shame that its second act proves a letdown. Still, it’s worth checking out if only for the first-act folly that transpires almost entirely “in the dark.”
Glendale Centre Theatre, 324 N. Orange St., Glendale.
January 8, 2017