As the showbiz adage goes, ya gotta have a gimmick, and the Vexler serves up a twofer with its double bill of classic British farces. Peter Schaffer’s Black Comedy and Michael Frayn’s Chinamen subvert theatrical norms for humorous effect; and while neither play could fill out an evening on its lonesome, together they offer a satisfying one-two punch of silliness.
Black Comedy is the more substantial piece, a justly famous one-act lark constructed around a brilliant conceit: Light and dark are reversed. The first eight minutes are thus performed entirely without illumination, until a blown fuse (paradoxically) floods the stage. As gimmicks go, it’s a doozy: Judging from opening night’s hearty guffaws, there’s little funnier than watching the increasingly manic maneuvers of characters trapped in an interminable “blackout.”
Besides sporting more blindness puns than even Oedipus Rex, the script un-spools as an almost perfectly constructed comedy, as impoverished artist Brindsley (Robert Barron) and star-crossed fiancée Carol (Stephanie Bumgarner) careen from one white (er, black?) lie to the next, with increasingly dire consequences. Like all fine farces, the genius is in the plotting, so I won’t give away the details here — but subsequent shenanigans involve identify theft, Pop Art, a vodka cart, and a priceless Buddha statuette. The possibilities for mayhem speak for themselves.
Under Kevin Murray’s generally nimble direction, the actors maximize the physicality of the piece, with plenty of “accidental” finger-to-nipple collisions and even some pleasantly salacious
homoerotic groping. In fact, Murray’s stage business provides some of the slyest humor of Black Comedy: I could spend all evening watching Bumgarner’s spirited attempts at mixing cocktails by touch. As supporting characters stumble across the stage the action becomes more and more frenzied; especially fine are Corinne Breitbach as a tottering, geriatric lush and Patrick Donnelly as a temperamental poof. Only toward the end of the act does the tempo lag, due, at least in part, to Shaffer’s attempts at social commentary concerning the British class system. It’s hard to be poofy, spoofy, and trenchant all at once.
Though crafted by the author of the peerless farce Noises Off, Chinamen is in fact less substantial fare than Black Comedy, both in terms of running time (about 45 minutes) and comic potential. The conceit here is that two actors play all the characters at a dinner party — for a sum total of five. Doubtless this seemed a tour de force in 1970, but now, alas, we’re spoiled: The gimmick pales in comparison to later experiments, including the Ridiculous Theater Company’s send-up The Mystery of Irma Vep and the current queen of quick-change comedy, the British import The 39 Steps (in which four actors cycle through dozens of Hitchcock’s characters). Still, Chinamen provides the chance for two of San Antonio’s best actors to strut their stuff, and Eva Laporte and Roy Bumgarner give it their all.
The slim plot concerns an upwardly mobile British couple preparing for an elegant dinner party. Moments before setting the table, the couple realizes that an error has resulted in an entirely inappropriate collection of guests. Amid plenty of slamming doors and clicking heels, Laporte and Bumgarner morph into three different dinner guests, including a boozing loser, his dizzy ex-wife, and a shaggy androgyne named Alex.
Jim Mammarella’s spirited direction keeps the farce bubbling along nicely, but even Mammarella can’t fix the ending, in which the action suddenly stops dead rather than properly concluding. (The title of the play, by the way, is the punch line to a joke of both dubious taste and hilarity; there’s a reason that a New York revival changed the title to Look-Alikes. ’Nuff said.)
For both plays, Ken Frazier provides a
characteristically sturdy set, though I worry that some audience members sitting stage left will miss the tomfoolery hidden in the staircase. (You might grease a few palms at the Vexler in order to get center seats; what’s a little bribery in this gilded age?) Tammy Frazier’s mod fashions are appropriately cringe-worthy, while Ken Frazier’s clever lighting design provides its own share of blackly comic jokes.
So: If you’ve a hankering for an evening of frothy comedy, consider the Vex for your next light out on the town. •
Chinamen & Black Comedy
Through March 1
Sheldon Vexler Theatre
12500 NW Military