Black Comedy

It takes a bold producer to put on a show that calls itself Black Comedy, particularly in a town which already has one black comedy playing at Studio and another in the halls of Congress. But the No Rules Theatre Company is known, correctly, for its chutzpah. How else could a group of unknowns establish themselves simultaneously in Washington and Winston-Salem North Carolina, put on Labute and Charlie Brown in the same year, win the John Aiello Award, and then – faced with the loss of their theater – get a three-year gig at the beautiful space of another hot company, Signature Theatre?

No other way, that’s how. This particular Black Comedy, though, is so named because it takes place, almost in its entirety, during a blackout. Fortunately for us, playwright Peter Shaffer (Marat/Sade, Equus, Amadeus) applies a sort of pretzel logic to the lighting scheme: when the characters are supposed to be in normal light, we are enveloped in velvety blackness, and after the lights go out, well, it’s lights full up, and we see the characters, blinking and stumbling, through the imaginary darkness. Light is darkness, darkness is light – get it? (Sounds a little Orwellian, doesn’t it?)

(l-r) Brian Sutow as Harold Gorringe, Dorea Schmidt as Clea and Jerzy Gwiazdowski as Brindsley Miller (Photo: C. Stanley Photography)

(l-r) Brian Sutow as Harold Gorringe, Dorea Schmidt as Clea and Jerzy Gwiazdowski as Brindsley Miller (Photo: C. Stanley Photography)

It will take you about fifteen seconds to pick this convention up – less, if you read the program – and once you do you can enjoy it for what it is: an old-fashioned British farce, complete with staggers, falls, swinging doors, slamming doors, mistaken identities and the like. The high-minded Shaffer is not too dignified to fill his story will all sorts of low antics, and the enthusiastic No Rules cast tucks into them with lip-smacking enthusiasm.

Here’s the setup: Brindsley Miller (Jerzy Gwiazdowski), a young man who aspires to be an artist and who has achieved poverty, has arranged for a party involving his fiancée Carol (Kathryn Saffell), her fierce father (Matthew R. Wilson) and the wealthy collector Georg Bamberger (Joshua Morgan), who has seen some of Brindsley’s stuff and might want to buy. In order to class up Brindley’s shabby apartment, he and Carol have temporarily boosted antiques owned by Brindsley’s neighbor, Harold Gorringe (Brian Sutow). As Brindsley and Carol tidy the place up, Carol casually inquires about a picture she noticed of Brindsley’s old flame Clea (Dorea Schmidt).

Then the lights go out. Or – go on.

First, the pious daddy’s girl Miss Furnival (Lisa Hodsoll), the terrified upstairs neighbor, shows up. Then Carol’s dad, Colonel Melkett, stomps and stumbles in, fuming in rage. Then – horror of horrors – Harold appears, having cut his dreary vacation short.

Then things really start to go wrong.

I’m not going to give you the details – you can find out yourself by going to the show. I will tell you that Sutow is absolutely fabulous as the antiques-obsessed Gorringe, a Scotsman who is deeply in the closet but who would love to come out. We are all a little less inhibited in the dark than we are in the full light of day, and all of the actors fidgeted and scratched in ways that people do when they know no one can be looking. But Sutow was particularly magnificent: the way his face lit up when some stumbling man accidentally touched him in the wrong place is priceless. And a scene late in the play where he turns from Liberace to Rambo deserves its own Helen Hayes Award.

There are a lot of other good things about this amusing production, including especially Travis McHale’s lighting design, which requires darkness to fall wherever a character flicks his lighter or turns on a flashlight. Once we get Shaffer’s conceit it becomes a matter of continuity to maintain it. If there is ever a moment where a character turns on a light and the production does not become dark in a corresponding way, we would be taken out of the fictive dream and invited to think about the light-dark device. McHale and his board operators never let that happen, and we are free to snort and guffaw at the characters throughout the production.

Hodsell is as good as I’ve ever seen her as the prim Miss Furnival. You know what happens to prim, spinsterish women in British farces, don’t you? Well, it happens to Miss Furnival, and Hodsoll carries it off beautifully.

Jerzy Gwiazdowski as Brindsley, Brian Sutow as Harold, Ryan Mitchell as Schuppanzigh, Matthew R. Wilson s Col. Melkett and  Kathryn Saffell as Carol (Photo: C. Stanley Photography)

Jerzy Gwiazdowski as Brindsley, Brian Sutow as Harold, Ryan Mitchell as Schuppanzigh, Matthew R. Wilson s Col. Melkett and Kathryn Saffell as Carol (Photo: C. Stanley Photography)

There are good performances everywhere, including a brief appearance by Ryan Mitchell as an art-loving electrician. Wilson, the Faction of Fools Artistic Director and a past master at physical comedy, brings us the sort of Brit who would have been comfortable in the Boer War, and Schmidt, whose previous work in DC seems to have been mostly in Fringe and workshop productions, is charming as the ex-girlfriend.

There are a couple of things which prevent this production from being absolutely top-drawer. Shaffer wrote Carol as a silly one-dimensional trinket, and it would have been hard for any actor to deliver lines like this: CAROL: Who was it better with, her or me? BRINDSLEY: What do you mean, “it”? CAROL: Sexy-poo.

But I am sorry that Saffell and director Matt Cowart chose to take her even further over the top. Her breathless screech is hard to listen to, and it makes it impossible to take her seriously. The best farce makes us take all the characters seriously even if their conditions are preposterous, and the more ridiculous the character is the more important it is that he appear human. Farce is funnier, after all, if it could happen to people who are just like us, only more stupid. Sutow and Hodsell get it; I wish I saw it more in Saffell.

Recommended
Black Comedy
Closes March 2, 2013
Signature Theatre 
4200 Cambell Avenue
Arlington, VA
1 hour, 30 minutes without intermission
Tickets: $30
Thursdays thru Sundays
Details
Tickets
John Bowhers’ set design is also a bit of a mystery to me. Brindsley’s home looks less like an artist’s and more like that of a fifteen-year-old boy who had been abandoned by his parents. I realize that he is impoverished but poverty can’t explain the paint-soaked handprints on the wall or what appears to be a child’s coloring book on the bookshelf in the kitchen.  Brindsley is a sculptor, but the apartment is full of bad paintings. His single piece of sculpture is a vaguely Calderish mobile which Brindsley apparently hopes to sell to Bamberger. From what I have seen of visual artists, they like to keep their homes orderly, as they are particularly sensitive to what they see. Brindsley’s home declares war on the eyes the moments the lights go up – er, down. Fortunately for his guests, their eyes are mostly noncombatants.

Ah, but so what. We’re going to a farce, not to an architectural seminar. You should go see this one; you’ll get your giggle on, for sure.

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Black Comedy, by Peter Shaffer, directed by Matt Coward (assisted by Kelly Wetherald) for No Rules Theatre Company. Featuring Jerzy Gwiazdowski, Lisa Hodsoll, Ryan Mitchell, Kathryn Saffell, Dorea Schmidt, Brian Sutow and Matthew R. Wilson. Scenic and props design by John Bowhers, Costume design by Chelsey Schuller, Lighting design by Travis McHale, Sound design by Derek V. Knoderer. Jason Krznarich, master carpenter.  Steven Royal is the Production Manager and Stephen Kriz Gardner is the Production Stage Manager. Produced by No Rules Theatre Company. Reviewed by Tim Treanor

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Other reviews

John Glass . DramaUrge
Jane Horwitz . Washington Post
Robert Catlin . MDTheatreGuide
Doug Poms . DCMetroTheaterArts
Jennifer Perry . BroadwayWorld

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