SALT LAKE CITY — Black Comedy begins in total darkness—and then the lights go out.
This ingenious conceit is the glue that holds this sometimes-rickety 1965 comedy together—the lights come up for the audience when the power goes out for the characters; whatever they can see we can’t (and vice versa). That playful bit of theatricality allows playwright Peter Shaffer to explore the social and thematic subtext at the heart of virtually every farce—the lies we tell and the lengths we’ll go to keep the truth from rearing its ugly head. In the dark, the conservative next-door neighbor sneaks an extra drink (or ten). In the dark, the repairman is easily mistaken for the richest man in the world. And darkness is, of course, the natural habitat of that great mainstay of all farce—infidelity.
The first thing you notice about Pioneer Theater Company’s production (once it’s bright enough to notice anything, of course) is the extraordinary set, a vibrant and elegantly detailed recreation of a London apartment from the swinging ’60s. The show looks like a million bucks, and the brightly lit, colorful set design adds a nice level of droll irony to the pitch-black bumbling of the characters.
As Brindsley, the play’s protagonist, Michael Brusasco seems to be channeling a younger, handsomer Basil Fawlty. The finely choreographed physical comedy as Brindsley attempts to move all the furniture from one apartment to another without anyone hearing or noticing provides the show with its best moments and its biggest laughs. The cast is strong all around, and each has his or her moment to shine—but too often the fine production is let down by uneven material.
“Dying is easy, comedy is hard,” the saying goes. And if comedy is hard then farce is unforgiving; the line between inspired and insipid is very fine indeed. While the premise is nothing short of brilliant, Shaffer’s script frequently falters: some of the dialogue is clunky, and, while the plotting is appropriately outrageous, it isn’t always believable (the ending is especially unsatisfying—even a bit lazy). Likewise, the characters’ extreme behavior—Colonel Melkett’s invented acronyms, for instance, or Brindsley’s silent explosions of rage against the heavens—too often feel forced and insufficiently motivated.
Still, while much of the humor is hit-and-miss, the show as a whole is entertaining, and it kept the audience in stitches throughout the entirety of its briskly paced running time. Black Comedy may not be perfect, but it’s certainly an entertaining way to spend an hour and a half.