Peter Shaffer’s 1965 Black Comedy, preceded by David Ives ten-minute “curtain-warmer “Sure Thing, opened at Strawberry Workshop, at the Erickson Theatre Off Broadway, on Thursday night. Although the curtain warmer was funnier than the main attraction, they were both hilarious.
“Confusion to its Enemies”
Historically, 1965 was an interesting time in Britain. It was right in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, but the Cultural Revolution there was different than in the US. The civil rights movement of the 50’s catalyzed the Cultural Revolution here, whereas in the U.K., the Beatles, the first working-class entertainers to ever make it in show business without changing their accents (i.e. disguising their origins) rattled the foundations of the class system seismically.
First performed at the National Theatre in London in 1965, Black Comedy, a classic bedroom farce, was inspired by the Chinese convention of staging plays in full light for the audience to see, when in fact the scene takes place in the dark. Shaffer had the play take place during a power outage after assembling a group of characters, whose conflicts create quite a raucous situation.
The play opens in the dark with swift exposition: Brindsley Miller, played by Richard Nguyen Sloniker, an impecunious sculptor/ne’er –do-well is awaiting the arrival of his fiancée’s father, Colonel Melkett, whom he is meeting for the first time, in his flat in South Kensington. To give the appearance of financial stability, the couple has “borrowed” the expensive antiques from a neighbor, Mr. Gorringe, a gay aesthete from up North, who is away for the weekend.
Also expected, at the same time as the Colonel, is a German millionaire art collector. Brindsley’s former rather bohemian mistress (one said mistress in those days) was not absolutely not expected. Utter bedlam is created when the lights in the whole house go out, the owner of the furniture returns unexpectedly and stumbles into the flat. The stage lights, however, go on for the audience to see what the actors are doing in the dark: mostly stumbling around.
I would be lying if I did not say that this play was extremely funny and amusing. There were a number of excellent physical gags, superbly choreographed by Cornish movement coach David Taft and a lot of humorous touches, of the slapstick variety, added by the director Kelly Kitchens; however, after a bit, the play started to get repetitive and lagged in the middle. Partly this was the play; it is difficult to sustain a play where there is no character development and only a slight dramatic arc. However, it was also due to over-acting and telegraphing the audience.
The actors played the characters as Americans with British accents. That is to say, they were too loud, too overly expressive and lost that dry, understated sense of humor which would have served the text much better and kept the audience’s attention much longer.
However, there is an excellent scene when the two former lovers Brindsley, and Clea, played by Allison Strickland engage in some lively repartee, beginning with a spirited fight but ending up realizing how very much in love they still are. The pacing was superb and made me sit up in my seat. The British don’t fight with loudness and aggression-they fight with indirect witty razor sharp verbal aggression. These two got it right.
Technically this show was highly sophisticated with intricate lighting and sound by Evan Mosher and Andrew Smith respectively The impressive set, which worked well for both shows was designed by Greg Carter. One of the delights of the evening were the costumes by Ron Erickson.
Carol Melkett, the sculptor’s fiancée, played brilliantly by Brenda Joyner, wore an authentic 1965 flowery mini-skirted dress in primary colors which was right out of San Francisco’s flower power movement. This contrasted nicely with the frumpy outfit of Miss Furnival, played by Emily Chisholm, as a teetotal lower-middle class woman, trying to ape the manners and accent of the social class above her. She and the Colonel represent the “before the war generation” ( World War II that is) who hanker back for the good-old days of clear class distinctions based on intangibles such as manners and etiquette. Complete with bow-tie and the appropriate casual tweeds, the costume of the aesthete, Harold Gorringe, played with just the right fey touch, was spot-on.
Under the expert direction of Gin Hammond the accents were correct and the subtle social nuances came through. The accent of the character of Miss Furnival slipped when she got drunk, thereby revealing her less than impeccable social origins. Brenda Joyner as Carol Melkett had just that linguistic touch of being more well-bred than her fiancé and his former mistress.
“I believe a man is what he is. (Bell) A person is what he is. (Bell) A person is … what they are
The title Sure Thing speaks volumes. It was one of the most delightful plays I’ve seen in a long time. A couple meet in a café and what initially looks like a casual pick up turns into a memorable “love at first sight” encounter. A man sees a beautiful woman reading and asks if the chair is taken, they begin to talk but each time the conversation goes off track, a bell rings and they start over, using the information they have already gleamed to perfect their compatibility.
What the audience sees on stage, in 10 minutes, is what couples usually go through, in the first 20 years of marriage-how to adjust oneself to one’s spouse to have a workable relationship. Allison Strickland and M.J. Sieber, as the couple Bill and Betty were superb. Allison Strickland is blessed with being able to handle British accents, both RP and Cockney light otherwise known as a London accent.
If you want an evening of laughter after reading the paper or watching President Obama’s hair turn grey due to the events in the U.S. and the rest of the world, these plays are guaranteed to deliver much needed relief.
Sure Thing and Black Comedy, by David Ives ( 1988) and Sir Peter Shaffer ( 1965)Strawberry Theatre Workshop. Erickson Theatre Off Broadway 1524 Harvard Ave, Pike and Harvard Ave E. Capitol Hill Seattle. Thurs-Sat 8 pm. Thru Sept. 21. www.strawshop.org Tickets: 1-(800) 838-3006 www.brownpapertickets.com