The 1965 one-act Black Comedy by Peter Shaffer (Equus) isn’t your average farce. The play opens in total darkness, characters’ voicing pinging around the room in a prolonged setup that has a tantalizing effect — just how long is this going to go on before there’s some comic payoff?
Shaffer continues a run of anticipatory, extended gags that are almost wearying in their build-up before erupting in uproarious physical punchlines. The lights do eventually come on — after a massive power failure that leaves everyone on stage in the dark. This reverse-lighting scheme provides the backbone for much of the show’s humor, and despite the structural cleverness, this is largely a one-note comedy. Observing characters attempting (and failing) to elude furniture and each other in the dark is the kind of thing that quickly yields to farce fatigue.
And yet, the well of laughter is continuously renewed in Strawberry Theatre Workshop’s production, directed by Kelly Kitchens and featuring an elastic cast that bounces back from every gag with renewed vigor.
Leading the cast is Richard Nguyen Sloniker as Brindsley Miller, a would-be sculptor attempting to juggle two women — fiancée Carol (Brenda Joyner) and old flame Clea (Allison Strickland) — while simultaneously impressing his future father-in-law (Michael Patten) and a famous, wealthy artist coming to look at his work.
The blown fuse sends a couple of elderly neighbors (Rob Burgess, Emily Chisholm) to take refuge in Brindsley’s flat, and the impromptu gathering threatens to uncover a few of his secrets, including some stolen furniture from one of the neighbors and his two-timing ways.
Sloniker’s smarmy cad is reminiscent of his turn in last year’s Boeing, Boeing at Seattle Rep, but he gets to rev up the physical comedy here, showing off his impressive pratfall prowess as he careers from one side of the stage to the other.
While Sloniker’s Brindsley tries to cover up his misdoings, the darkness offers others a chance to indulge in some uncharacteristic behavior. Chisholm’s Baptist-raised preacher’s daughter Miss Furnival takes a liking to the bar selection, and there’s not much funnier on this stage than a drunkenly carousing Emily Chisholm in old-age makeup.
Similarly, Patten’s severe Colonel Melkett turns into a wide-eyed paranoiac when things go bump around him in the dark, and his swift reversals as the lights turn off and on offer low-key hilarity throughout the play.
The period go-go chic of Greg Carter’s set is a lovely, detailed thing to look at, particularly after the anticipation of the opening minutes, and Ron Erickson’s costumes complement it nicely.
The evening opens with David Ives’ Sure Thing as a curtain raiser, a playful, linguistically flexible 10-minute short in which Allison Strickland and MJ Sieber get a little (OK, a lot) of help from an accommodating waiter (Michael Patten) in their path to forming a romantic connection.
Black Comedy is on stage at the Erickson Theatre through Sept. 20. Tickets are available online.