‘Black Comedy’s’ low humor brings high guffaws


Members of the No Rules Theatre Company rehearse for the production "Black Comedy" at The Signature Theatre. (Stephen Gardner)
February 14, 2013

Can we agree that characters who make fools of themselves onstage tend to be funnier when they sound British? Also French.

No Rules Theatre Company does that convention much justice in its bumptious revival of Peter Shaffer’s 1966 farce “Black Comedy.” From the playwright who gave us the high drama of “Equus” and “Amadeus” also came this ­low-comedy of pratfalls and misbehavior.

It may be low, but dash it all, chaps, it’s funny, too.

For most of the play’s 90 minutes, six people, plus two who appear briefly, bash around in a pitch-black London flat after a fuse has blown. With no flashlights, candles or cigarette lighters at hand, the characters slam into hot radiators, sharp furniture, tricky staircases and one another, grabbing drinks on purpose and the odd breast by mistake.

The audience watches nearly all this with the stage lights blazing. The play’s central conceit requires the actors to behave as if they can’t see a thing, while the audience observes the high jinks. A skilled and energetic cast under Matt Cowart’s adept direction makes it all click.

For the first few minutes of “Black Comedy,” it’s the audience members who sit in the dark. We hear but don’t see Brindsley (Jerzy Gwiazdowski), a struggling sculptor, and his cutesy-wootsie fiancee, Carol (Kathryn Saffell), who says things like “drinky-poo.” They’re preparing for a visit from a wealthy art lover in hopes he’ll purchase one of Brindsley’s pieces. They also await Carol’s ex-military father. As we listen to the couple babble and move about, we learn that they’ve “borrowed” nicer furniture from Brindsley’s absent neighbor so that they can impress their visitors.

Carol plugs in a stereo, blowing a fuse, and she and Brindsley are plunged into darkness. But for the audience, the lights come up brightly so we can see them. They stumble around Brindsley’s shabby loft, designed by John Bowhers to be a veritable obstacle course of art and furniture. Panic sets in as other people arrive — the bespectacled Miss Furnival (Lisa Hodsoll) from upstairs, who doesn’t want to be alone in the dark, and then, horror of horrors, Brindsley’s neighbor, Harold (Brian Sutow), back early from his trip.

Now the lights mustn’t come on or Harold will see his stolen furniture. And how can Brindsley drag a couch, a table, a chair and knickknacks back into Harold’s flat — in the dark — and bring back his own bits without Harold noticing? Situation piles upon situation.

The comedically gifted Gwiazdowski turns Brindsley into a sweaty multi-tasker. And he has more issues than a bad fuse. Besides the stolen furniture, there’s the sudden arrival of his artist girlfriend, Clea (Dorea Schmidt), with whom he never really broke up, and the fearsome colonel (Matthew R. Wilson), his future father-in-law. Miss Furnival gets plastered, Harold gets miffed, the colonel gets suspicious, Carol gets weepy and Clea gets amorous.

The archness of the actors’ delivery and the intimacy of Signature Theatre’s Ark space might cause a theatergoer to fear a tidal wave of overacting. But that worry recedes as the situation onstage grows more ridiculous and complex. The angst and panic among the actors seems justified, and very funny. Only near the end does the production lose a little fizz, although it never goes flat.

Yes, some accents could be fine-tuned (is Sutow as Harold doing Liverpudlian?), and Schmidt’s Clea could drop her voice to achieve a more sultry persona. Having seen the show at the final preview, one trusts the cigarette lighters that appear later in the play will flick on more dependably.

This show starts off a three-year residency for No Rules at Signature. “Black Comedy” seems to imply it’ll be a good thing.

Horwitz is a freelance writer.

Black Comedy

by Peter Shaffer. Directed by Matt Cowart. Lighting design, Travis McHale; sound, Derek V. Knoderer; costumes, Chelsey Schuller. With Ryan Mitchell. About 90 minutes with no intermission. Presented through March 2 in the Ark at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington.

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