By John Quinn
Peter Shaffer is among the more intellectual of modern playwrights. Any theater patron who has experienced “Equus” or “Amadeus” can attest to that. Shaffer’s 1965 one-act, “Black Comedy,” is the master having a little fun with theatrical conventions. The folks at The Snug, Marine City’s spanking new theater, have revived this farce for some “light” summer entertainment.
“Light” is the operative word. The title “Black Comedy” is Shaffer punning around. The term usually refers to a narrative in which profound events are portrayed in a comic manner. By making light of serious subject matter, dark comedy can skirt an audience’s discomfort. In this play Shaffer pulls a switch: A chance electrical outage puts his cast in the dark, but we see them in full stage lighting. When “their” lights are working, the characters become disembodied voices. Light is dark, dark is light – let the games begin!
Aspiring but struggling artist Brindsley Miller (Curtis Younce) has attracted the attention of the “Mystery Millionaire,” the reclusive, German-born Georg Bamberger. Herr Mega Marks – sorry, “Euros” – will visit Miller’s London flat to view and, with luck, buy some of the sculpture on display there. Also invited are his fiancee Carol Melkett (Krista Haney), and her father the Colonel (Adrian Diffey). Boyfriend and Daddy haven’t met yet. In order to impress the Colonel and the millionaire, Brindsley has swapped out his shabby furnishings for the priceless antiques in the flat across the hall, the property of fussy Harold Gorringe (Pal Molnar). As luck would have it, Harold is out of town. All plans for the evening are thrown into chaos when the lights go out (or for the audience, the lights come on). Our young couple is joined by teetotaling Miss Furnival from upstairs, who’s afraid of the dark; Colonel Melkett, who takes an instant dislike in Brindsley, and Harold, who has unexpectedly returned early. Oops. Brindsley now has motivation to keep everybody in the dark, lest the furniture theft be discovered.
Shaffer tosses some of the expected elements of farce into the cake mix – for instance, mistaken identity. Schuppanzigh the electrician (Charles Chalgian), who, sporting a thick German accent, is taken to be the late-arriving Bamberger. Present, too, is Brindsley’s spiteful ex, Clea (Sara Koch), who slips in unnoticed under the cover of darkness. All in all, Brindsley Miller is in for a really bad night. His audience, though, is in for a really good one.
The Snug is a storefront theater seating a tad less than 100 patrons. This puts the entire audience up close and personal with the play. Both house and stage have high ceilings, the better to display a serviceable, two-level set constructed by Tom Vertin. But all theaters have their individual quirks, and in a new space, a few are yet to be discovered. As is characteristic of venues of this shape, The Snug swallows sound, especially with a full house. As a result, what might sound like an appropriate volume on stage doesn’t carry into the audience; even what is supposed to be a whisper needs extra projection. The problem is particularly noticeable when a performer is speaking upstage, with his back to the audience.
I like my farce the way I like my steaks: thick, juicy and – gourmets forgive me! – well done. Under the direction of Nancy Arnfield, “Black Comedy” is done to a turn; juicy, or rather, racy, without being vulgar, and hitting all the right comic flavors. Actually, one could have expected an even broader interpretation – even some mugging – since the characters are supposedly not able to see each other’s expressions.
A costume designer is not credited – many parts of the production seem to be group efforts – but they are very much in the spirit of this over-the-top play. They not only capture the spirit of the mid-’60s, they immediately define character.
Marine City is a charming community, and Kathy and Tom Vertin have added to that charm by investing in this sweet little performance space. The birth of a theater company is reason for celebration – so, welcome, folks, to the circus!
The Snug Theatre, 160 W. Water St., Marine City. Thursday-Sunday through July 27. 70 minutes, no intermission. $20. http://www.thesnugtheatre.com