The lights go bright at first in the new No Rules Theater Company production at the Signature Theatre. Brighter, brighter and then boom: Black. The Ark Theatre at Signature doesn’t allow one possible lumen as we hear characters moving about the stage right in front of us. Yet we can hear their banter about the décor or how they look. Then another flash: it’s bright on stage yet the characters complain about a blackout.
…an hilarious comedy of manners
In the topsy turvy world of Peter Shaffer’s farce Black Comedy, the notion becomes quite clear: when it’s bright to us on stage, it’s dark among the characters. And so begins the hilarious comedy of manners, directed by Matt Cowart, as a sculptor tries to impress his impending guests: one, his fiancé’s uptight father; the other, a millionaire potential patron.
To spruce up the place, he’s borrowed some of the nicer furniture and decorations from his neighbor’s flat without his knowledge. There is also the matter of an ex-girlfriend suddenly reappearing on the scene. Our beleaguered hero Brindsley Miller has to keep a lot about his shambling life in the dark from his girlfriend, from his neighbor, and from the potential customer. So the darkness comes in handy when the neighbor (and the ex girlfriend) both stop over. Can he move all the borrowed furniture out of the room and move back his bad pieces back in without anyone noticing or nothing getting broken? Will the ex girlfriend stay hidden from the fiancé and her dad?
His attempts, fully exposed to the audience, provide for some terrific physical humor and acrobatics as Jerzy Gwiazdowski’s Brindsley trips over a fancy couch or tumbles down the stairs.
A tee totaling neighbor played by Lisa Hodsoll gets a little loopy when she gets some drinks in her for the first time. Kathryn Saffell, who puts on a terrific comic yowl as the fiancé, is doing her part to keep up the charade. Her father, played by Matthew R. Wilson, has an opportunity for a lot of exasperated looks and his own tumbles. Brian Sutow, who is also the producing artistic director for the No Rules Theatre Company, puts on a mustache, silk tie, and a droll Northumberland accent to play the neighbor with the decent furniture who has come back home unexpectedly. Dorea Schmidt adds some sass in her portrayal of the freewheeling ex-girlfriend Lea – it’s easy to see why Brindsley can’t quite forget her. And when a beefy German repairman played by Ryan Mitchell, comes in to attend to the lights, everybody defers to him, thinking he’s the millionaire.
For the Winston-Salem, N.C., based company who have put on parallel seasons in D.C. since 2009, Black Comedy starts a three year run with the Signature, and it already seems like a good fit. While the audience in the cozy Ark seems right on top of the stage, the company’s biggest cast yet is scrambling over a minefield of a stage, each quite believable in their inability to see (partially from rehearsals that were done blindfolded; aided by all manner of padding beneath their clothes to quell the inevitable bruises).
The compact production design by Stephen Kriz Gardner with its bad art and its key objects from the 1960s (a rare Twinkles cereal box!), emphasize the kicky 60s setting for the farce. The lighting design by Travis McHale is one of the most complicated in theater: every time someone lights a match or illuminated a flashlight, that part of the stage goes dark, in the unusual light-is-dark, dark-is-light scheme of the play.
Presented straight through without an intermission, there’s no chance to miss the velocity of the fast-moving, fun and funny play – and no chance to adjust to the real life qualities of light during any intermission. The production so captures their trope, you almost expect them to take their bow in the dark, but luckily for the audience they do not.
Advisory: Adult situations but nothing to dissuade teens.
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Black Comedy by the No Rules Theater Company plays in the Ark Theatre of the Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave, Arlington, Va., through March 2. For more information and tickets click here .
The production moves to the Hanesbrands Theatre in Winston-Salem, N.C. for shows March 20 – April 7.