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Black Comedy 

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BLACK COMEDY

Full Moon Revivals

at the Beat Kitchen

The new theater company Full Moon Revivals states its mission as "mounting unique, rarely produced masterpieces of contemporary theatre." The piece it's chosen for its debut, Black Comedy, hardly qualifies as a masterpiece. But this cleverly contrived bit of 60s fluff is indeed rarely produced. Its sharp style and tricky technical demands are beyond the resources of many troupes--including Full Moon Revivals. Still, for an audience expecting nothing more than a few low-cost laughs over a drink or two, this modest production in the air-conditioned (but unfortunately not smoking-free) back room of the Beat Kitchen bar is not without merit.

Written in 1965 (between the author's full-length dramas The Royal Hunt of the Sun and Amadeus), this one-act comedy by England's Peter Shaffer is a gimmicky variation on the tried-and-true farce. It's set in a small flat that has just been hit by a power blackout, so the plentiful comings and goings usual in farce are supposedly conducted in total darkness. But Shaffer calls for the stage to be brightly lit, allowing the audience to see what the characters cannot. (The first few minutes, before the blackout occurs, are played with all the stage lights off.)

Into this situation Shaffer drops an array of stereotypes familiar to any fan of British comedy. The hero, a Beatles-era version of P.G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster, is the archetypal postadolescent twit with a knack for getting himself into terrible trouble. A would-be artist, Brindsley is throwing a small party for some special guests--including Carol Melkett, a ditzy debutante Brindsley wants to marry (she likes him because he's "sexy-pegs"); Carol's daddy-pegs, a Colonel Blimp-type British imperialist; and an immensely wealthy German art collector (outfitted, of course, with a ludicrous foreign accent) who is coming to inspect Brindsley's work.

Since his own furniture is as shabby as his ethics, Brindsley has "borrowed" expensive antiques from his next-door neighbor, Harold Gorringe, a fussy queen who may or may not be Brindsley's part-time playmate. When a burnt-out fuse sends the building into darkness, Harold seeks refuge in Brindsley's flat--so Brindsley must secretly try to return all Harold's furniture and knickknacks while Harold, Carol, and her father await the German's arrival in the pitch-black apartment. Adding to the confusion are Miss Furnival, a sexually repressed spinster who dips a little too heavily into the liquor; a foreign electrician whom everyone mistakes for the art collector; and Clea, Brindsley's earthy former lover--anxious to patch things up, she wreaks mischief under cover of darkness with the intent of preventing Brindsley's betrothal to Carol. All in all, as Carol comments, the situation is "very messy-pegs."

Something this messy-pegs requires total precision, in everything from the actors' attitudes and physical contortions to the set design and the timing of the lighting. When these elements are in crisp working order, Black Comedy can be breathlessly funny--as it was when I saw it on Broadway in 1967, with a cast that included Michael Crawford, Lynn Redgrave, Geraldine Page, Peter Bull, and Donald Madden. Full Moon's revival, directed and designed by its artistic director Daniel Haag, falls disappointingly if not disastrously short in most areas. The tacky, drab furniture fails completely to suggest the elegant antiques Harold is so possessive about; complicated comic bits involving Colonel Melkett's attempt to light a match (whenever the room grows a little brighter, the stage lights are supposed to dim accordingly) are clumsily executed on a low-tech light board; and the pratfalls, groping, and other slapstick clowning that dominate the play's first half--most of it belonging to Brindsley as he crawls about the room trying to retrieve Harold's antiques--is effortful and not very spontaneous-looking, which spoils the effect.

Still, the sheer improbability of the plot and the stylized silliness of the characters are guaranteed to amuse. The actors are mostly adequate to their roles, if lacking in the special edge of lunacy needed to make this kind of comedy work. Nic Arnzen's Brindsley is the least successful performance--Arnzen's raucously infantile overplaying might work if he were physically smaller, but it's too much from such a tall man on such a small stage. The best work comes from Shannon Colbert as Carol, who (perhaps because she hails from New Zealand) has the clearest understanding of the British farce style as well as the most convincing English accent, and from David Boyle as Harold, who manages to preserve the role's caricatured campiness while avoiding homophobic stereotyping. His titanic temper tantrum upon discovering Brindsley's misdeeds is truly glorious in its mix of oversize outrage and delicate hurt. Very funny-pegs.

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