BLACK COMEDYBy Peter Shaffer
Director: Lisa Devine
Assistant Director/Stage Manager: Monica Ruiz
Producer: Jenifer Grace
Assistant Producer: Polly Kuzniewski
Set Designer: Jeff Mabray
Lighting Designer: David Gibson
Sound Designer: Rich Frohlich
Costume Designer: Paul McKenzie
Properties Designer: Terrie Justus
Light Board Operator: Monica Ruiz
Sound Board Operator: Darcy Koss
Brindsley Miller: Christopher Sykes
Carol Melkett: Meghan Miller
Miss Furnival: Laura C. Cutler
Colonol Melkett: Tom McWhorter
Harold Gorringe: Charles Maxham
Schuppanzigh: Manuel C. Cruz
Clea: Rachel M. Carothers
Georg Bamberger: John K. Wright, V
Reviewed Performance: 9/10/2011
Reviewed by Ashlea Palladino, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Black Comedy isn't a traditional farce in that the action doesn't rely on the Who's-Behind-Door-Number-Three formula. Instead we see the characters move through the plot in complete darkness. Except not really. Let me explain.
Brindsley Miller is a fledgling artist with mounds of nervous energy. Brindsley is engaged to Carol Melkett, a squeaky debutante whose imposing military father has not yet consented to their union.
In an attempt to impress his fianc?'s father, Brindsley "borrows" a menagerie of antique furniture pieces from his neighbor Harold Gorringe's flat and presents them as his own during a dinner party he and Carol are hosting for her father. Georg Bamberger, a millionaire art collector, is also on the guest list for dinner. Brindsley feels that selling his sculpture to Bamberger will solve several problems: it will cement his reputation as a true artist, it will give him and Carol enough money to marry, and Bamberger's interest will positively influence Colonel Melkett's opinion of Brindsley.
Of course nothing is that simple. A fuse blows in Brindsley's flat, Harold Gorringe returns home unexpectedly, their teetotaler neighbor imbibes one too many adult beverages, a power company employee is mistaken for Bamberger, and a very unexpected guest sneaks into the action while the power is out.
The cleverness of this script was found in the phrase "while the power is out." During the opening scene when the fuse was still intact, the lighting was low and subdued and even pitch black at times. Then when the fuse actually blew, the house lights came on and everything was illuminated. Thusly, when an actor used a candle or a lighter on stage to break up the imagined darkness, the house lights were dimmed. Lighting Designer David Gibson did a nice job setting up this backwards twist though at times the board operator seemed a little slow to react to the necessary changes brought on by the action of the story (i.e. sometimes it was dark when it should've been light and vice versa).
The theater was rearranged for Black Comedy so that there was no traditional stage. All of the action took place on the theater floor and spanned the length of the space from north to south with two rows of audience seating positioned on the east and west sides of the room. The theater entrance served as the portal into Brindsley's flat on the south side and a stairway led up to a studio bedroom on the north. A sofa, several chairs, a beverage cart, a record player and Brindsley's prized sculpture were stationed between the bedroom and the entrance door. Set Designer Jeff Mabray creatively transformed this theater so every available inch of floor space could be utilized for the physical comedy that is the centerpiece of this story.
Chris Sykes portrayed the excitable, high-strung Brindsley. Mr. Sykes's appearance was very off-putting at first because of his costume. Dressed in neon green pants, pink socks, multi-colored boat shoes, and what may be the most authentically 1960's-era jacket (and by that I mean "ugly") I'd ever seen, he looked more clown than artist. But after a few minutes of watching him nervously fumble about, the more the costume began to fit the character. Mr. Sykes's physical comedy was what struck me most. Whether sliding down the stairs on his rear end, tangling himself in the lengthy telephone cord, or putting his leg through the opening of a rocking chair, Mr. Sykes was believably skittish and neurotic.
The part of Carol Melkett was played by Meghan Miller with mixed results. Ms. Miller looked every inch the upper crust debutante, from the fabulous silver shoes (I had a hard time pulling my eyes away from them) to the bling in her bouffant. Her characterization lacked consistency in some places however. While working at the beverage bar, slinging ice this way and gin that way, Ms. Miller was hysterical. When in direct dialogue with other characters though is when she seemed to forget she was supposed to be in the dark. If she were truly in the dark, she wouldn't be addressing someone while staring directly at them. This particular issue was a challenge for most of the actors at some point or another and I imagined this to be the greatest test in this show ? to make the audience wholeheartedly believe that the actors couldn't see where they were going or what they were doing.
Laura C. Cutler as the neighbor Miss Furnival delivered what was the most consistent performance of the evening. The somewhat holier-than-thou Miss Furnival mistakenly accepted an alcoholic beverage during the blackout and while she was at first horrified at the thought of ingesting any type of spirit, she soon cottoned to the idea. So she drank another. And then another. Most of the action was going on around her instead of directly with her but Ms. Cutler stayed in character the entire time by doing small things like licking the rim of her glass to sop up the last ounce of her drink. Her monologue in Act 2 was the funniest moment of the show.
Carol's commanding father, Colonel Melkett, was played with understated humor by Thom McWhorter. Well, it was understated at least until Mr. McWhorter cracked and lost it in the middle of Act 1! (Why is it so dad-gummed funny to watch actors lose it?) Mr. McWhorter's physical humor was a nice compliment to Mr. Sykes's and I enjoyed watching them interact. I especially loved Mr. McWhorter's karate-inspired moves which he initiated each time periods of darkness overcame the apartment.
Charles Maxham played Harold Gorringe, the neighbor from whom Brindsley borrowed the furniture. Mr. Maxham did a nice job with his character's range of emotion as Gorringe seemed to swing from excitable to downright angry to petulant and everywhere in between. Out of the long list of his character's affectations, Mr. Maxham played "spoiled", "rebuffed" and "plundered" best.
While his was not a very large role, I thoroughly enjoyed Manuel C. Cruz's take on Schuppanzigh, the London Electricity Board worker who was dispatched to repair the fuse. He was believable as the worker (who the audience saw) but also as the millionaire art collector (for whom the actors mistook him). John K. Wright, V played fat-cat Georg Bamberger, and though he was in but one scene, his presence was important since the whole story focused on him showing up for dinner.
Clea, Brindsley's former lover (or was she?) played by Rachel M. Carothers, entered the action at the very end of Act 1 and turned this sweet little English farce into something altogether more colorful. Clad in a sparkly crimson getup that was part trapeze artist and part dominatrix, Clea quickly took control of the situation and of the audience. It became painfully obvious during Clea's first few minutes on stage that Brindsley had been less than honest with Carol about his and Clea's relationship. Clea listened at first without reacting (remember, all of the actors were still in the literal dark) but then she pulled a couple of pranks that had Brindsley squirming and running for the nearest exit. Ms. Carothers was exceedingly comfortable in her role - she appeared to be having genuine fun pushing Brindsley's buttons - but it was also very apparent that she was hurt by Brindsley's relationship with Carol.
Costume Designer Paul McKenzie shocked me with his choices for these characters though the choices did grow on me as the show progressed. I already mentioned Brindsley's heinous jacket, but then all of the characters were similarly garbed in bright jewel tones or fluorescent pinks and oranges. Colonel Melkett's Sgt. Pepper-inspired uniform, along with his puzzle piece socks, solidified his persona as the no-nonsense military man while also adding the dash of whimsy that made all of these characters funny. The same was true for Carol's hot pink and orange cocktail outfit. Each time her character hit a proverbial wall in the story, a layer of Ms. Miller's clothing was removed until she was down to a fringed bra and panties. I couldn't decide if the drive for such vibrant costumes was to represent the 1960's at its gaudy best or to juxtapose the electric color against the lack of artificial light in the apartment. Maybe it was a little of both.
Director Lisa Devine assembled a capable cast to tell this tale and she added some original touches of her own that made the show memorable. In Act 2 when Brindsley and Clea were alone in the upstairs studio, the action transferred back and forth between the two in the bedroom and the remainder of the cast in the living room. Ms. Devine threw in a few short musical breaks during these scenes that were quite amusing (think of the dance breaks between scenes in the Austin Powers movies), and they also served to identify the second act as something new and different. Some people may choose to see this show based solely on my mentioning an actress in her underwear ? oh well, so be it. Who am I to judge?
at the Cox Building Playhouse, 1517 Avenue H, Plano, TX 75074
Runs through September 24th
Shows are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm
Ticket prices are $16 Thursday and $20 Friday and Saturday with a $2 senior/student discount each evening.
Tickets can be purchased online at www.roverdramawerks.com or by calling the box office at 972-849-0358.