Though he went on to write much, much more famous scripts like Equus and Amadeus, playwright Peter Shaffer has said he got his highest compliment in 1965, on the opening night of his slapstick play Black Comedy. As Shaffer later wrote in an introduction to the play, he was sitting behind “an enormously fat man… the only man in the theater, I think, who wasn’t laughing.” Shaffer decided, superstitiously, that “if he disliked it, it was a failure,” and spent the evening watching and fretting, when the man suddenly laughed like “a volcano about to erupt, and he fell in the aisle and began to crawl towards the stage.” The man sobbed with laughter, “crawling down among the knees of the critics and all that saying, ‘Oh stop it, please stop it, please stop it! I can’t bear it!’ It was possibly the nicest thing that ever, ever happened to me as a playwright.”
Nobody crawled down among my knees on the opening night of Strawberry Theatre Workshop’s Black Comedy, directed by Kelly Kitchens. But the original audience’s “detonation of human glee” (as Shaffer put it) seems like a particularly British-circa-1965 reaction to a comedy of manners about how we behave when the lights are on (and we know we can be seen) and who we are when the lights go off (and we think we can get away with things). Our animals come out at night.
Black Comedy’s conceit is simple: When the lights go on in the play, the stage goes dark; when the lights go off in the play, the stage turns dazzlingly bright. So we first meet the callow young London sculptor Brindsley (Richard Nguyen Sloniker) and his sickeningly saccharine fiancée, Carol (Brenda Joyner), in complete darkness as they walk around his apartment and discuss the evening’s plan. We hear their footsteps and the clinking of glasses as Brindsley frets about making a good impression on two people coming over that night: Carol’s strict father, Colonel Melkett (Michael Patten), and a millionaire art collector named Georg Bamberger (credited in the program as playing himself). With any luck, the nervous Brindsley will finish the evening with a wealthy new patron and an official engagement. To make himself look better off than he is, he and Carol “borrowed” some expensive furniture from fussy, antiques-dealing neighbor Harold (Rob Burgess), who’s away for the weekend.
Then a fuse blows, the lights come up, and the slapstick marathon begins. Brindsley and Carol grope awkwardly around the apartment, make panicked faces, and trip (or almost trip) over the expensive furniture. Does Brindsley have matches, candles, or a flashlight? No, no, and of course not.
Things become increasingly undone as the play moves along—a prissy neighbor lady (Emily Chisholm) takes refuge in Brindsley’s apartment, Colonel Melkett is indignant about Brindsley’s incompetence with emergencies (“I see,” he grumbles. “N.O. No organization. Bad sign!”), and then the antiques-dealing neighbor comes home early, meaning Brindsley and Carol have to figure out a way to keep things dark until they can swap all his furniture out again.
Sloniker plays Brindsley as an insecure, high-pitched squealer—one wonders what Carol, or the mysterious other woman in the photograph Carol found in his dresser drawer, sees in him. But his long, lithe limbs flail comically around the stage, and his rubbery face is perfect for Black Comedy, where one of the pleasures is watching people say something in a pleasant tone of voice but with a snarling expression because they think they can’t be seen. Patten as Colonel Melkett is another great face-maker, driving himself into cross-eyed apoplexies, sneering at the silliness of his daughter, and reacting to the shifting state of the apartment’s furniture with an almost mystical look of confusion.
But Black Comedy’s central joke wears thin after awhile, even as Shaffer keeps raising the stakes by adding new wrinkles, like the German electrician everyone confuses for the millionaire art collector (MJ Sieber), and the tripping and tumbling get more intense. (Lots of walls and doors are walked into—it looks like designer Greg Carter built the walls to bounce ever so slightly off actors’ faces. Regardless, Sloniker ended the show with what looked like a little blood across the bridge of his nose.) The broad characters, braying accents, mild physical peril, and comedy of manners are good for some initial laughs, but once we get the setup, the joke doesn’t have anywhere to go.
Some people say the funniest thing in the world is watching other people fall down. After Black Comedy, I can say I’m not fully in that camp. Though if a man in front of me on opening night had fallen out of his seat and started “crawling down among the knees of the critics,” I might have to reconsider.