Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

"Black Comedy" Brightens Hanna

Cleveland Press December 5, 1967

"Black Comedy," a wildly slapstick affair imported from England, opened at the Hanna last night and proved to be as much an assault on the ear drums as it was an appeal to laughter.

If it is pure theater you have been missing, this is for you. This one-act play by Peter Shaffer is one that cannot exist away from a stage and an audience. It is purely visual and its script could only suggest its possibilities.

This is a gimmick play. Quite simply when the stage lights are on it is dark and when it is dark it is really light. Thus characters can be seen groping and bumping on the lighted stage and normalcy exists only when the stage is dark.

The setting is the London flat of a young artist Jeremy Clyde. The play opens in absolute blackness to the ear-splitting din of "The Stars and Stripes Forever;" followed by a conversation between Clyde and his fiancee, Jennifer Tilston, indicating that they have temporarily stolen the furnishings of an art collector neighbor in anticipation of visits by a wealthy art buyer and her father. Then the fuse blows, the stage lights go on and the fun begins.

INTO THE BLACKED OUT APARTMENT stumble the father, Byron Webster, a stuffy, bullying ex-army officer; the effete neighbor, Barry Boys; a tee-totaling landlady, Angela Wood, who gets the wrong drinks in the dark; the artist's ex-mistress, Monica Evans; an electrician with an accent and a taste for art, Charles Mayer; and finally the millionaire, Richard Lederer.

Each arrives in time to complicate matters further. With the arrival of the neighbor the young artist tries to move the expensive furnishings back to the other apartment before the lights go on. Then the other girl friend arrives in time to get an earful about the latest romance and hand out a few choice remarks herself.

THE SUCCESS OF THIS DEPENDS entirely on how well the actors can bump and flounder, point fingers past each other as they argue and narrowly miss killing themselves. Clyde comes closest to total demise as he walks into the edge of a door and falls all the way down a flight of stairs.

This young singer-turned-actor (formerly half of the team of Chad and Jeremy) acquits himself well among his more experienced colleagues in a role that has him crawling and slithering more than walking.

Miss Tilston creates the picture of a blank-eyed, bland faced debutante who talks more quickly than she thinks; and incidentally talks only a few decibels lower than that shattering recording of "Stars and Stripes."

If there is a fault in the performance it is one of stridency. Everyone is at the top of his voice and audiences in this electronic age may find themselves unconsciously groping for the volume control.

"BLACK COMEDY"is half of the evening. The other one-act play, the curtain raiser, is "White Lies" and also is by Shaffer. This is a more serious work in which a seedy fortune teller, Wood, is bribed by the manager of a singing group to predict death to another young man in order to break up a budding romance.

There is a neat turn of events and the play should have ended there but didn't. (For that matter "Black Comedy" goes on past the point of its inventiveness.)

Miss Wood, who is delightful as the landlady discovering the joys of alcohol in the comic half of the evening, assumes a German accent for "White Lies." The accent is good but her lines had a tendency to trail off, sometimes leaving the end of a sentence in doubt.

BOYS, AS THE VILLAIN, registered nastiness. As the art collecting neighbor in "Black Comedy" he was overly swishy.

Clyde, as the young singer, is believable and appealing.

"White Lies" is a tour de force for an actress and the entire evening is an example of dexterity in writing. Playwright Shaffer is subtler (for half the time) in "White Lies," cosmically inventive in "Black Comedy."

In both instances he displays an almost inexhaustible bag of tricks for three quarters of the way. What was missing were a couple of fast conclusions.

The evening, however, is fun -- more fun than the Hanna has seen in some time.