Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Black Comedy & The Public Eye"

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note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Caroline Burlingham Ellis
[Review first appeared in the Wayland Town Crier, Colleen Egan editor]

Two Comedies Two Knighted
playwright showcased at Vokes

Reviewed by Caroline Burlingham Ellis

Perhaps nothing defines a society so much as what people consider funny. So although there are plenty of laughs in the double bill now at the Vokes Theatre, something seems to have changed in our sense of humor since the comedies were written in the late 1960s. Maybe it changed with shorter attention spans and rapid-fire Comedy Central gags. Maybe it changed last September, so that Taliban jokes on the Internet are now more likely to generate guffaws than comedies featuring class warfare in England. But as one theatergoer remarked of the "Public Eye," "It wasn't really funny in the beginning. It was mostly setting up the situation."

Getting the right story structure is important to recently knighted playwright Peter Shaffer, who wrote detective fiction before turning to the stage. Best known for "Amadeus," about Salieri's rivalry with Mozart, and "Equus," about a troubled teen's love-hate for horses, he also has written one-act comedies. Director John Barrett has combined two, "The Public Eye" and "Black Comedy," in an evening ranging from poignancy to farce.

In "The Public Eye," an outrageously attired Terence Coe, the supposedly unobtrusive sleuth Christoforou, shadows and possibly falls in love with the young, uneducated wife (Melissa Sine) of uptight accountant Charles Sidley (Jonathan Ashford). Comical but not hilarious (except for the accountant jokes lobbed at Andersen and Enron), the play has its serious side, as the detective reveals the outsider, immigrant sensibility that has made him (like a playwright?) a watcher of others instead of someone capable of a private life.

Shaffer, who attended the best schools but saw another side of life as a coal miner during World War II, demonstrates in both plays his disgust with class prejudice. The main characters in "Black Comedy" are ridiculous in a variety of ways, not the least of which is in their fawning over an art connoisseur while they think he is wealthy and their rejection of him when they realize he is an immigrant working for the electric company. Their blindness is accentuated by the main conceit of the play, which is that the lights have gone out and the characters are groping around in the dark.

In fact, only the opening of "Black Comedy" is conducted in darkness. When the lights come up for us, we are to believe they have just gone out onstage. The true blackout of the first scene is intentionally disconcerting, but at Vokes, it was unintentionally disconcerting that the disembodied voice of the lead man (Mark Haas as sculptor Brindsley Miller) was so high-pitched some audience members imagined two women planning their engagement party.

More farcical than "The Public Eye," "Black Comedy" pits Miller's society-girl fiancee (Ann Medaille as Carol) against his earthy artist lover (Sine as Clea), who turns delightfully vengeful pretending to be Miller's charwoman spilling secrets. One of the brightest spots of the evening is Miller's aesthete neighbor, Harold Gorringe (Bob Williams), who is unaware that Miller has borrowed his priceless antiques to impress Carol's Colonel father (Ashford) and an invited millionaire (Coe). Enlivening the hubbub further are Jack Sweet as the philosopher-repairman Schuppanzigh and Elyse Cronyn as an elderly neighbor whose sainted preacher father would not have approved of the "lemonade" she is pouring in the dark. (Cronyn garnered special applause with her tipsy tirade against encroachments on the middle class.)

Barrett has considerable experience directing farce (with "Noises Off," "See How They Run" and "The Rivals," among others) and knows that success lies in the timing. Although it should not be the case that productions get better with each performance, it seems likely that the sources of laughter will increase as Christoforou whips snacks from his pockets ever more expertly and the motley crew of "Black Comedy" speed up their tripping and groping. The show opened Feb. 28.

Barrett deserves mention for designing the contrasting sets, a stuffy accountant's office and a bohemian artist's pad. Jack Martin produced the shows, and costumer Ann Carnaby came up with the 1960s looks. The lighting, especially tricky in "Black Comedy," with lights dimming every time someone strikes a match, was courtesy of Lighting Associates.

The plays run through March 9. For information, call (508) 358-4034. .

[Review first appeared in the Wayland Town Crier, Colleen Egan editor]

"Black Comedy" & "The Public Eye (till 9 March)
Beatrice Herford's Vokes Theatre, Route 20, WAYLAND

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide