The best thing about Black Comedy, the Arts Club season opener at the Stanley, is The Marriage Proposal. In place of the curtain-raiser called White Lies that Peter Shaffer wrote to precede Black Comedy, Dean Paul Gibson directs a hilarious 15-minute version of Chekhov’s short play about a Russian landowner (Jeff Meadows) come to propose to the harridan daughter (Sasa Brown) of his neighbour (Simon Bradbury). The three actors play their characters broadly, intensely, and with perfect comic pitch. The result is like a really good TV variety sketch you might have seen on the old Sid Caesar or Carol Burnett shows.
The much longer Black Comedy that follows is a farce with long stretches of tedium interrupted by moments of fun from a talented cast, and some nice physical comedy by Charlie Gallant at centre stage. The conceit is that there’s a power failure in his London apartment where he, his fiancée (Julie McIsaac), and her pompous father (Bradbury) are awaiting a wealthy art patron coming to buy some of his sculptures. The lights go out in the apartment but stay up on the stage, so the audience watches the characters manoeuvre “in the dark.” A couple of neighbours (Meadows & Nicola Lipman), an ex-girlfriend (Brown), an electrician (Sean Devine), and finally, for one quick sight gag, the patron (Simon Webb) stagger about, bumping into things and each other or narrowly missing them, and doing pratfalls. But it’s hard to sustain the silliness and the show never really builds momentum.
Still, it’s a great pleasure watching the work of Meadows doing his arrogant prissy thing and Lipman as the little old lady getting progressively drunk. Gallant has one great gag, bum-surfing down a flight of stairs. Ted Roberts’ set design is also a treat, motifs from his Kandinsky-inspired screen that dominates The Marriage Proposal scattered through his colourful patchwork set for Black Comedy.
But Shaffer’s 1965 play feels much more dated than Chekhov’s from the 1890s. And sometimes less really is more.