Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy borrows its conceit from a 600-year-old Chinese play: Darkness and light are reversed, so when the characters stumble about during a power outage, the audience can clearly see everything the characters can't.
Unfortunately, somebody installed a dimmer switch on Beowulf Alley's production of the play, which never quite achieves full farcical intensity.
Part of the trouble at last Saturday's performance was that the show desperately needed another tech rehearsal. To pull off the light-dark reversal, the lighting cues need to be precisely synchronized with the action onstage. When one character strikes a match, the lights need to dim a little; when the match is blown out, the lights should immediately come up full. Too often last weekend, the lighting adjustments lagged well behind the stage business, and the finale was disastrous, a blackout that never happened.
Technical trouble aside, director Nancy Arnfield and her actors have difficulty establishing and maintaining a unified tone, and even playwright Shaffer seems uncertain whether to push the script in the direction of full-out farce or clever metaphor.
Shaffer wrote the one-act Black Comedy in the mid 1960s, fairly early in his career but not before he'd demonstrated his skill with a string of smart plays that deserve more frequent revivals than they currently get. Around the same time he cranked out Black Comedy, he was also working on the spectacular Royal Hunt of the Sun; the psychologically astute Equus and, yes, Amadeus were still a few years off. Black Comedy is a more blatantly commercial effort than any of those other plays, as farce will be, but Shaffer seemed to have a more subtle social comedy in the back of his mind, even while he diligently obeyed all the conventions of farce, including mistaken identity and sexual duplicity knocked about with a bit of slapstick.
You see, Brindsley Miller has a couple of problems. He's expecting two very important visitors to his shabby London flat. One is a wealthy German who may purchase one of Brindsley's odd conceptual sculptures (one looks like it was borrowed from BICAS); the other is the monstrous father of Brindsley's superficial new fiancée, Carol. In order to impress the two older men, Brindsley has surreptitiously borrowed some fine furniture and objets d'art from his out-of-town neighbor, Harold.
But just before the guests arrive, the apartment building blows a fuse. As we watch Brindsley bumble around in what is, to him, absolute darkness, a frightened, older neighbor lady takes refuge in Brindsley's apartment; Carol's father (a blustering colonel) arrives in high dudgeon; and neighbor Harold comes home unexpectedly early. Brindsley has to return Harold's belongings before the lights come on and everybody wises up, all the while trying to ensure that certain embarrassing personal information remains in the dark.
Director Arnfield is apparently of two minds regarding the characters. Her women--Nicole Stein as Carol, Hilary Pursehouse as the neighbor and Barbara Flanary Armstrong as an unwanted late visitor--tend to be flighty caricatures, which is all well and good in high farce. The men, though, operate on a plane of reality closer to our own. Oh, the colonel (Bill Epstein) is all pomp and bark, but Brindsley (Stephen Cruz) never succumbs to the abject terror you'd expect from a duplicitous young man on the brink of exposure. And Brian Taraz plays the potentially flamboyant and cartoonish Harold with actual dignity and reserve. Let's go one way or the other; these disparate people don't quite belong in the same play.
Furthermore, a lot of the "accidental" groping and tripping in the "dark" look contrived, and there's not quite enough sense of danger as Brindsley slithers around his unsuspecting guests. Those problems, and the lighting trouble, will probably sort themselves out as the cast and crew settle into the show. Too bad Beowulf Alley had to flip the switch on this production a little too soon.