HumorThe theater world often makes it hard to find a play that can sustain itself around one central conceit; however, Peter Shaffer’s one-act farce “Black Comedy” at the Signature Theater succeeds in doing just that.
The play centers around Brindsley Miller (Jerzy Gwiazdowski), a paragon of the struggling artist desperate to be discovered, and his posh Knightsbridge soon-to-be fiance Carol Melkett (Kathryn Saffell). The couple has invited Carol’s uptight, pompous, ex-army-officer father Colonel Melkett (Matthew Wilson) over for a party. Brindsley is also expecting a wealthy German art collector, Georg Bamberger (Joshua Morgan), who is supposed to buy one of Brindsley’s sculptures for a large sum of money. He and Carol have “borrowed” furniture from the apartment of their neighbor, Harold Gorringe (Brian Sutow), a dandy beau. Just as they are expecting their guests, there is an electrical failure, the apartment is plunged into darkness, Harold returns, a few unexpected guests drop in “while the power was out” and the audience descends into a bottomless pit of hilarity.
The play revolves around darkness. It is staged in a reversed lighting scheme: the play opens in the pitch-black. A few minutes into the dialogue a fuse short circuits, and glaring lights illuminate the stage, revealing the characters in a “blackout.” Whenever matches, candles or torches are used in the scenes, the lights grow dim. The comedy lies in the ability of the audience to watch the characters stumble and blunder around in the darkness — dramatic irony at its finest.
Shaffer’s device of inversion lifts the facade of social etiquette, exhibiting the play’s array of characters in their exposed states and shedding light (quite literally) on shades of their personalities that are usually kept hidden.
If timing is everything in comedy, then that is true in spades for Shaffer’s comic staple. Written in the 1960s, this outrageous British farce full of sexual undertones requires broad physical buffoonery combined with exquisite timing to work. Pity the cast that has not had substantial experience or training in that area — their efforts truly would be a lot of flailing around in the dark.
The No Rules Theatre Company’s production of “Black Comedy,” however, terrific. Shaffer’s ingenious technical gimmick provides ample opportunity for visual humor, opportunity that has been fully exploited by the team. While the visual gags do threaten to wear a little thin halfway through the play, the company’s superb acting of Shaffer’s script is full of witty one-liners that save the play.
As a farcical rollick, however, there is no doubt that “Black Comedy” entertains. There are some side-splitting turns from the supporting players, with one highlight being Lisa Hodsoll’s wonderful portrayal of prissy Miss Furnival’s descent from an upstanding member of the community to an alcohol swigging eccentric once the glare of social scrutiny is dimmed. In the minimal role of electrician and amateur art critic Schuppanzigh, meanwhile, Ryan Mitchell very nearly steals the show with a comic tour de force.
At the conclusion of the play, as Schuppanzigh delights in his God-like role of returning light to Brindsley’s anarchic world, the audience is left with the sense that, as Shaffer’s reversal implies, the result is far from illuminating. In “Black Comedy,” darkness is light, and it is only in the absence of both light and society’s glare that the truth becomes fully visible.
Black Comedy plays through March 2 at the Signature Theatre — 4200 Campbell Ave. in Arlington, Va.

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