Black Comedy, by Peter Shaffer. Directed by Timothy Foley. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Jim Staudt, Christine Decker, Amanda Garcia in rehearsal; photo: provided
"Excuse me, Sir, if I'm talking out of line. . ."
How the opening scene looks
On the stage at Oldcastle Theatre in Bennington, VT a whole lot of apologizing is going on as the company presents Peter Shaffer's 1960s delightful one-act play, "Black Comedy." Originally the second part of a larger program that included the three-character comedy, "White Lies," it played a year on Broadway back in 1967, garnering five Tony nominations and winning a Theater World Award for Jordan Christopher who replaced the original star, Michael Crawford. The apologies are part of a hilarious script about a man who is trying to impress his potential father-in-law while at the same time wooing a millionaire art collector into buying one of his sculptures. A simple party is disrupted by an electrical outage and therein lies the central concept of the play.
At the start of the evening Brindsly Miller and his girlfriend Carol Melkett are busy congratulating one another on their plans for the evening. As they move about the apartment set from one end to the other we know where they are but we cannot see them at all. The stage is completely blacked out, a box of darkness which, for them, is a brightly lit room. Then the worst happens as the fuse that lights their building self-destructs plunging them and everyone else into complete darkness as the stage lights burst into brilliant light for us. The balance of the play is played with us able to see everyone, even though they cannot do the same and we watch them struggle with a life in the darkness. This is really very funny stuff as they stumble, fall, crash, create havoc and chaos, negotiate as best they can the rooms and the relationships that become increasingly intriguing.
One thing Brindsley must do in the dark is return a roomful of furniture to his neighbor's apartment because the neighbor has unexpectedly returned from a weekend away. Doing this provokes some of the greatest laughs in the theater for while we can watch easily as he attempts to move things, he is, in reality, caught in that darkness where space is uncontrollable and distance is hard to define.
Jim Staudt as Brindsley does a remarkably good job playing the awkward physical stuff while maintaining a certain poise and dignity in his verbal communications. He has a funny voice, actually, with accidental breaks and hearty sighs and he makes use of its awkwardness to great effect. Slender and good looking, the show allows him to use his sporty skills to highlight the accidents that often happen in darkness. There comes a moment where you know he cannot land on his feet, and he suddenly does. It is just as funny as any pratfalls he takes, any accidental interruptions he encounters. His is a wonderfully amusing performance, one where awkwardness is more acceptable than gracefulness.
As his "partner-in-crime" Amanda Garcia plays a delightful-poo fiance whose indomitable cuteness is only outweighed by her inevitable jealousy. She is an excellent "groper" as she moves through her fiancee's rooms and a delectable daughter as she woos her father with liquor she cannot keep straight (yes, there's water involved, but there is also that presumed darkness and hard to read bottle labels). Garcia's performance is as good as it gets in this play and the same can be said for her fiancee's former girlfriend, Clea.
She is portrayed by Ana Anderson who understands what it takes to be sexy in any outfit available. Her presence at the party is unanticipated and she makes the most of that in clinches, kitch and confessions. Anderson does an excellent job with this role.
Colonet Melkett, Carol's father, is nicely played by Gary Allan Poe who's height is almost as funny as his movement and lines. In a company of small to average people, his height makes their reactions to his voice very amusing. He is constantly out of their general reach and their many attempts to come to grips with the Colonel and his attitudes is strained to the breaking point as he remains untouchable.
Richard Howe as Schuppanzigh and Dan Silver as Georg Bamberger trade off on voice and accents and provide good late humor from a totally different aspect that is much appreciated. Both men do very good work in these roles.
Two long-time favorites at this theater have rolicking good times with their roles. Peter Langstaff as the neighbor, Harold Gorringe, is generally remarkable as a man whose interests, like Michelangelo's, do not lie in the commonplace heterosexual world. As he works his way through the machinations of Brindsley Miller his performance takes on shades of human interraction that open up the play immensely. It is a touching and hilarious performance by an actor who can make even the most unusual human being seem the most normal.
As Miss Furnival, the other neighbor who is dropped into the Miller apartment due to the electrical circumstances, is Christine Decker. Decker rarely misses in her roles and this one gives her opportunities for laughter that are not her usual thing. She becomes progressively subjugated by alcohol and her decline is hilarious. She is over-sensitive from the beginning to being among stolen furniture and when she is ultimately hidden away on one piece it is an exit to relish. Her final monologue about shopping carts is genuinely the silliest ever written and she outdoes my memory of Camila Ashland in the original production.
In fact this company under the impeccable direction of Timothy Foley, a master at this sort of physical and psychological comedy apparently, overwhelms those memories of Lynn Redgrave, Donald Madden, Geraldine Page, Peter Bull, Pierre Epstein and Crawford.
On Carl Sprague's outrageous set in Liz Stott's delicously period costumes, this company in Vermont is the equal of any I've seen in this material. It is a terribly short run in Bennington and the performance I saw had the largest audience I've ever seen for a non-musical at Oldcastle, so I would recommend that you find your seats very soon if you want an evening of outrageous fun. And please, for everyone's sake, feel free to laugh out loud. Many of us did, but others in their seats seemed to think we were the clowns and stared at us each and every time we reacted honestly to the outlandish goings-on on stage.
Laughter is not only the "best medicine" it is the perfect antidote to the end of summer and Oldcastle's "Black Comedy" is giving us all a chance to celebrate with amiable delights.
Rehearsal photo of Jim Staudt and Peter Langstaff; photo provided
Ana Anderson and Jim Staudt; photo: provided
Black Comedy runs through September 6 at Oldcastle Theater, 331 Main Street, Bennington, Vermont. For tickets and information call the box office at 802-447-0564 or go on line at www.oldcastletheatre.org.