The lights are out

by Michael Bowen

Since the folks at Lake City Playhouse are putting on an hour-long one-act for their second production of the season, they saw fit to open the evening with a series of two-man comedy skits. The idea was to make the evening funnier and longer.

They should've kept it shorter. And I don't mean that it's the opening act, necessarily, that should be dispensed with. It's the headline production of Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy that should be abbreviated.

Shaffer's play is a farce with a gimmick. The stage lights are down when the fictional scene is brightly lit, and vice versa. (Most of the play has normal onstage lighting -- which, to the characters, is darkness.)

As in most farces, the characters are shallow and stereotyped: the pious hypocrite, the pompous military man, the swinging bachelor (it's a 1965 play) and the two '60s chicks who pursue him -- one the feisty ex-girlfriend, the other his pampered fiancee. No new insights into human character here. But no matter -- the emphasis should be on silly behavior and fast-moving humor.

Should be. Director Charles Gift, however, has allowed the pace to lag. Farces require breakneck speed; this one trips and falls nearly as often as its characters do. At least they have an excuse: they're supposedly in a completely dark room.

Hammy acting undermines the show. Seldom is the script trusted to convey an idea -- no, that idea must also be portrayed with a lot of mugging for the audience. For example, as Miss Furnival, the moralistic crone down the hallway who disdains Demon Rum, Deanna Jeffres doesn't trust the audience to hear the single note of her characterization. She's preachy, she's a hypocrite -- got it. But Jeffres -- and she is by no means the only such offender in this cast -- wants to clobber us with emoting. She can't just purse her lips occasionally in disapproval -- she must do so continually. She can't indicate just once or twice that she is overhearing scandalous matters -- she must incline the ear and roll the eye repeatedly. When tempted by the wonders of intoxication, she cannot sip the Scotch; she must gulp it thirstily so we are sure to notice her. She's a pious hypocrite -- noted. Let's move on. But we don't move on, at least not very briskly.

Scott Lockwood loses opportunities to characterize the effete, art-loving neighbor. With chin held very high, arms clasped judgmentally behind his back, eyes wandering over the ceiling, he strikes the pose of the sophisticate -- and holds it. And holds it. He mumbles far too many of his lines; the point of entire paragraphs gets lost.

Brook Bassett's Carol, the fiancee, runs to Daddy whenever she's crossed and has a cutesy kind of diction that christens every other object she sees with the "-poo" suffix, as in "drinkie-poo." Bassett's mincing and pouting are overdone. It would be funnier if her childish mannerisms clustered on an otherwise likable character. That way, at least, we would see what swinging bachelor Brindsley Miller (Nathan Rinehart) sees in her.

Since the evening's program describes all four of the shows in Lake City's fall season, it clearly sets forth the light/dark reversal that is the comic premise of the play. It's a safe bet, therefore, that most audience members know beforehand what the play's gimmick is. The opening sequence, played in stage darkness, naturally lacks visual interest. We can't see what's going on, we can't see the faces of the two actors, and given that they have obviously expository dialogue to plow through, it's a dreary stretch. The sense of anticipation -- "Oh, boy, we're about to see a fun theatrical trick" -- is pretty well extinguished by the acting's banality even before the lights are. In a play that robs eye contact from the actors, it's imperative that they connect with us.

Some aspects of the production, though, work well. Shaffer's script calls for deft maneuvering in and out of stage darkness, and even some half-light sequences in which characters strike matches or carry "torches." The timing requirements upon the stage manager and the sound-and-lights personnel are exacting, and the LCP staff are up to the challenge. In fact, when Rinehart missed his aim in attempting to blow out a Bic lighter being held up by the elderly colonel (played with authority by Darrell Louks), it actually resulted in more comedy: we found ourselves pulling along with the actors and the tech people in their attempt to synchronize the lights.

There are, to be fair, a couple of cleverly timed comic sequences. At one point, Rinehart, in the midst of carrying furniture all over his pad, gets tangled with a lamp cord but still manages to pass precisely underneath guests' outstretched arms. There's also the bit in which Clea (Melanie Orr) plops down on the couch between two men who take her, in the stage "darkness," to be that hypocrite of a puritan woman (who's absented herself, of course, to make yet another run over to the liquor cabinet).

The undercard in this comic slugfest is comprised of the skits performed and apparently for the most part written by Gookin and Bianchi. Naturally, there were hits and misses. A squabble over a dead parrot went on too long. Bad puns marred an opening rumination on biblical names. Bianchi has the distracting mannerism of straightening out the hem of his T-shirt no matter what character or situation he's playing. On the other hand, Gookin's exasperation as a bookstore owner over a demanding customer with ungrammatical demands is quite funny. And as the self-satisfied police inspector who makes the startling discovery that a recent train robbery was pulled off by a gang of thieves, Gookin rises to comic mastery.

Too bad they didn't just call off the dogs of comedy right then.