English sex farces should be served lightly chilled and stirred with the crisp comic malice Brits have been perfecting for centuries.
That recipe is not followed closely enough in Strawberry Theatre Workshop’s overheated, unevenly humorous production of Peter Shaffer’s “Black Comedy” at Erickson Theatre.
Shaffer wrote this one-act comedic contraption, a silly romp with a groovy gimmick, in 1965. (His more substantial, widely celebrated hit dramas “Amadeus” and “Equus” would appear later.)
The clever theatrical device “Black Comedy” pivots on: a power blackout in the apartment building of a young artist with hustle but indeterminate talent. As Brindsley (Richard Nguyen Sloniker) and his cutesy-poo fiancee Carol (Brenda Joyner) fumble and stumble around a flat filled with purloined antiques, preparing for visits from a bigwig art collector and a straight-laced parent, we observe in full light the mayhem that occurs in pitch dark. Meanwhile, the play’s characters can “see” nothing.
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Shaffer’s time-capsule farce is sharpest at doubly nailing the culture clash between swinging, sexed-up ’60s London and dowdy, musty pre-Beatles England. The swingers are best represented by the callow poseur Brindsley and his steamy ex-girlfriend, Clea (Allison Strickland).
Waving the banner for the old guard are Brindsley’s middle-aged neighbors. The prudish Miss Furnival, played by an aged-up, grayed and tweeded Emily Chisholm in Ron Erickson’s perfect time-stamp costumes, has moments of hilarity. And Rob Burgess has more as a fussy antiques buff with an, ahem, special friendship with Brindsley.
There’s also a tiptop Michael Patten as Carol’s fuming military father, appalled his daughter would deign to marry an arty slacker.
“Black Comedy” is a setup for much pratfalling and head-bumping, in a slapstick ballet that director Kelly Kitchens and her agile cast pull off without apparent injury. Choice bit: Strickland’s vampy Clea drops in unexpectedly and seduces her ex-lover under cover of darkness and the nose of his fiancée.
Greg Carter’s retro-set design and sound designer Evan Mosher’s mix tape of frothy ’60s Muzak are amusing throwbacks.
But the laughs should be less piecemeal, the gags better orchestrated and sustained in Kitchens’ staging. Sloniker and Joyner open the play at a high, loud pitch of hysteria and have nowhere to go. In fact, Sloniker seems frenetic throughout, when more gradually evolving from nonchalant caddishness, to mild panic, to full freak-out mode might have been much funnier.
“Black Comedy” also suffers by comparison with the short-short one-act by David Ives that precedes it on the bill. “Sure Thing” spins on a gimmick, too, as a pair of singletons (the spot-on Strickland and MJ Sieber) meet by chance in a cafe, size each other up, and try to make a love connection — or not.
With helpful intervention from a waiter (Patten), Sieber tries out numerous lines and gambits in a barrage of conversational do-overs. And in just 10 minutes, with subtlety and shrewd wit, Ives investigates the mutability and intricacy of social intercourse and mutual attraction.
A note: This is Strawberry Theatre Workshop’s last stand at Capitol Hill’s Erickson Theatre before relocating to the new 12th Avenue Arts complex. In seven seasons at the Erickson, the company gathered some of Seattle’s leading actors and directors for thoughtful productions of biographical dramas and other plays, among them “The Normal Heart,” “Leni,” “The Bells” and updated Living Newspapers. Here’s hoping Strawshop’s next phase, up the hill a ways, will be as gratifying.
Misha Berson: email@example.com