Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Black Comedy
Theatre in the Round Players
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule


In the photo: Josh Carson and Don Maloney
Photo by Bob Suh
Peter Shaffer, the British playwright who died in 2016 after a long and storied career, was acclaimed for such weighty dramatic works as The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Equus and Amadeus, but he also devised one of the funniest stage plays to ever hit the boards. That play is Black Comedy, a trifle if viewed against such themes as colonial and spiritual imperialism, repressed sexuality, and the toxicity of pride and envy Shaffer touches upon in his better-known work. However, if laughter is, as some wise person or other once said, the best medicine, there is more healing to be had in a performance of Black Comedy than in a triple bill comprising all three of those thought-provoking plays.

Theatre in the Round Players is giving Black Comedy a rollicking production that doesn't miss a beat of its comic mayhem, thanks to crackerjack direction by Brian P. Joyce and a cast that has mastered the split-second timing required to pull off this barrel of hijinks. The play premiered in London in 1965 (in a production featuring a young Maggie Smith, Albert Finney, and Derek Jacobi) and was brought to New York in 1967, featuring Geraldine Page and the Broadway debuts of both Lynn Redgrave and Michael Crawford. The manners and morality built into the play are very much of that decade, and it now comes across as a period piece, though in no way stodgy.

The title has a specific meaning, as the majority of this ninety-minute one-act takes place in the dark. Not to worry, the audience sees all that is going on, but the characters stumble about as if trapped in utter blackness. The play opens with aspiring artist Brindsley Miller and his fiancée Carol Melkett fussing about in his flat as they await two oddly matched visitors: the millionaire Georg Bamberger, an art aficionado to whom Brindsley hopes to sell his works of abstract sculpture, and Carol's father, Colonel Melkett, a military man who cares not a whit for art, but prizes stalwart efficiency. The couple seek his approval as they plan to announce their engagement. To keep the Colonel "in the dark" concerning Brindsley's lack of financial success, he and Carol have swapped his broken-down furniture for the elegant antiques owned by his neighbor Harold while the latter is away for the weekend. This without Harold's knowledge, as Harold is extremely attached to his valuable furnishings and would never have permitted them to be taken off his premises. Surely, though, there will be no harm done and the furniture will be returned with Harold never being any the wiser.

We strain our eyes a bit to see Brindsley and Carol in this opening scene, as it is performed in the dimmest of indirect lighting. When a burnt fuse suddenly shuts their power off, they are left in the dark—but for the audience, the lights come up full strength. Brindsley and Carol stumble about, their arms jutted out to detect walls and other obstacles, while we see their every awkward move. In short order they are joined by another neighbor, Miss Furnival, who seeks company as she is afraid of the dark, and then Colonel Melkett, who is very put out by Brindsley's lack of preparation for a power outage. The electric service is called but provide little comfort, saying that a repairman may come out at some point.

Things take another turn toward bedlam when two more, most unwelcome visitors arrive: Harold, whose weekend away has been called short; and Clea, Brindsley's randy ex-girlfriend, who may not be quite as "ex" as Carol has been led to believe. For the most part, though, characters feel and stumble their way about in the dark as Brindsley tries valiantly to fix things so that no one—not Harold, not Carol, not Clean and not the Colonel—discovers his deceptions. All the while he awaits Mr. Bamberger, on whose patronage all of his hopes depend.

We have no trouble laughing at Brindsley's misfortunes. He is not a very likable chap, and he clearly got himself into the dilemma at hand by misrepresenting himself in a cowardly fashion. Carol has a ghastly habit of adding "poo" to the end of words, so she describes the d├ęcor as "rich but not very gaudy-poo," and a protest that "I am not simple!" becomes "I am not simple-poo!" The Colonel has a fetish for reducing all human behavior to absurd shorthanded initials: B.E. (basic efficiency); D.D (determined defeatism); and so on. There is a teetotaler given over to drink, mistaken identities, speculation about kinky games being played in the dark, and numerous pratfalls—all this and more in the name of a giddy laugh fest.

Eight actors form a well-tuned ensemble, physically in step with the illusion of not being able to see one another. Holding the center is Josh Carson as Brindsley, performing the besieged host with panache. Carson manages to convey all of the reasons we are appalled by Brindsley, while still drawing us in to thoroughly enjoy his company. Kendra Alaura is feisty and sexy as Clea, conveying the brains and grit beneath the good-time girl façade. As Carol, Kaitlin Klemencic is a sensible and obliging alternative to Clea, underscoring her feigned meekness with every "poo" added to every sentence.

Don Maloney is a bracing Colonel Melkett, sputtering out his alarm and suspicions about Brindsley's mental state, yet never a very real threat. Alison Anderson is quite hilarious as Mrs. Furnival, whose tight grasp on decorum gives way to sloppy, slithery abandon before the night is through, while Matt Saxe creates a perfectly formed Harold—urbane, tightly wound and possessive. H. William Kirsch and Don Larsson complete the ensemble, and one and all maintain the fast pace of physical comedy and sharply exchanged dialogue that never stops for a breath.

The set, surrounded in Theater in the Round on all sides by the audience, is designed by Lee Christiansen to be convincing as a shabby apartment punctuated by interesting modern art pieces, with some quality antique furniture that seems frankly out of place. A step-up to the liquor cabinet provides just one of the numerous opportunities for characters to trip in the dark, or resort to moving about on their knees. An annex to the stage, atop a set of stairs through the audience, provides a loft for Brindsley's untidy bedroom.

A. Camille Holthaus's lighting design assures us of seeing all that takes place "in the dark," with lights dimming whenever a bit of light breaks out on stage, as when a character strikes a match, or a flashlight (or, this being Britain, a torch) makes a brief appearance. Costume, sound, and prop design serve the production well.

Plays like Black Comedy require a suspension of disbelief. Can we really believe that no one in a London apartment building has candles or a flashlight, or that there would not be some ambient light by way of the windows coming from the city outside? Oh, it might be that the entire district has suffered a black-out, but early on a character reports that there are lights outside, only this building has lost power. But what fun would any of that be? We go along because in return we are given a rollicking good time, and a wickedly funny demonstration of how ridiculous the human species can be when we connive to outsmart others. This medicine, laughter, does feel good—no, feels great!—and we are all to eager to lap it up and be relieved of all the seriousness that plagues our lives.

Black Comedy runs through February 2, 2020, at Theatre in the Round Players, 245 Cedar Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $22.00, seniors (62+) - $18.00, students with ID - $15.00. Discounts not valid on Saturdays. For tickets and information, call 612-333-3010 or visit TheatreintheRound.org

Playwright: Peter Shaffer; Director: Brian P. Joyce; Set Design: Lee Christiansen; Costume Design: Carolann Winther; Lighting Design: A. Camille Holthaus; Props Design: Tyler Lanam; Sound Design: Robert Hoffman; Assistant Lighting Designer: Adam Reinke; Stage Manager: Samuel Joseph.

Cast: Kendra Alaura (Clea), Alison Anderson (Miss Furnival), Josh Carson (Brindsley Miller), H. William Kirsch (Schuppanzigh), Kaitlin Klemencic (Carol Melkett), Don Larsson (Georg Bamberger), Don Maloney (Colonel Melkett), Matt Saxe (Harold Gorringe).


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