The enormously funny “Black Comedy” blasts open the new season at Ojai ACT with a blaze of ... darkness?
The audience quickly realizes this show reverses darkness and light. When the stage is dark, the characters can see as normal. But when the electricity goes out, the stage lights go up and the action plays out as if the characters are in a blackout. “Black Comedy” is a riotous, farcical, British play by legendary playwright Peter Shaffer (“Equus” and “Amadeus.”)
The scene is the apartment of an ambitious, unscrupulous sculptor, Brindsley Miller (Paul Sulzman), and his ditzy debutante girlfriend, Carol (Cecily O. Hendricks nailing it as the wide-eyed, upper-class bimbo.) Two visitors are expected: Colonel Melkett, Carol’s wealthy, conservative, bombastic father who is meeting Brindsley for the first time; and rich foreign patron of the arts, Georg Bamberger. Seeking to impress them both, Brindsley has removed expensive antique furnishings and art from the flat of his vacationing and unwitting neighbor, Harold.
In the classic tradition of British farce, Brindsley’s plans goes awry, unexpected guests show up, identities are mistaken, tricky truths are brought to light in the dark, kisses are stolen, bottoms are grabbed, absurdity rules, and nobody escapes with their dignity intact. Watching the mad-eyed stares of groping people in the dark is inherently funny and, free from the gaze of others, the characters react with all the puzzlement, desperation, and slyness they conceal in the light.
Suddenly, the electricity short circuits. As the characters are plunged into “blackout”, the stage blazes into light and we find ourselves in a warmly colourful 60’s London flat. Paul Sulzman as the ethically-sketchy sculptor, immediately commands the scene with force and vitality and some skillful physical comedy, his headlong, blind pratfalls eliciting delighted “Ooh!”s from the audience.
The first unexpected guest to arrive is the starched, and pious spinster neighbor Miss Furnival, seeking company in the blackout. A cocktail errors in the dark leads Carol to serve alcohol to the confirmed teetotaler, who takes a liking to it and continues to help herself liberally from the cocktail table. One of the greatest delights of this play is to watch Nancy Jane Smeets’ starchy Miss Furnival dissolve gradually into hilarious, hair-mussed inebriation.
Next, Colonel Melkett arrives, played with bristling, mustachioed umbrage by Dave Newcomer. Naturally, this old imperialist dislikes his daughter’s new Bohemian beau at first (non-)sight, and the hapless Brindsley’s plans are further stymied with the unexpected arrival of hanky-waving, antique-adoring, Harold, back early from his trip.
We’re given to understand Harold (played with impeccably wounded high camp by Antonio Royuela) has designs on Brindsley, designs that have not been rebuffed entirely, but by now we know that Brindsley is a cad, out to cultivate relationships for his own gain. This is confirmed when his ex-lover Clea arrives unseen, under the impression she is still Brindsley’s girlfriend. Then the sparks really start to fly as an increasingly suspicious Clea (played with vampy, saucy steel and beautiful comic timing by Brittany Danyel) realizes Brindsley’s deceit.
Enter the art-loving electrician, a highly educated German whom everybody mistakes for the millionaire. John Medeiros walks the tragicomic-line like few actors can, and Schuppanzigh, his affronted, bewildered foreigner is screamingly, Teutonically hilarious. By the time Bill Spellman, as the real millionaire shows up, the audience is in a state of high glee but Spellman manages to wring yet more laughter out of us. This reviewer has rarely seen an audience laugh so often and so hard at the Ojai ACT before.
Director Richard Camp mines the play for all the groping accidents, cocktail confusion and slapstick he decently can while expertly ratcheting up the confusion with each new guest entering the room. It’s not easy to do farce this well and easy to overdo it.
All the madcap energy and messy confusion requires precise, tidy and disciplined direction; and the timing must be impeccably choreographed while maintaining spontaneity and the mounting manic energy that farce demands. The story-telling must be crisp and the audience must be able to understand completely the various predicaments of everybody on the stage for the whole thing to work.
Camp’s vision is clear and the results from him, his experienced crew, and this talented cast are 90 minutes of exuberant, memorable fun, a truly magnificent and merry start to the 2016 season. A must-see.
“Black Comedy” is co-sponsored by OPAT (Ojai Performing Arts Theater) and Ojai ACT. It runs through Feb. 14, at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays at the Ojai ACT, 113 S. Montgomery St. Tickets are $15 general and $12 for seniors, students and Art Center members. For tickets and information, call 640-8797 or visit: www.OjaiACT.org