Happy Medium Delivers Clever ‘Black Comedy’ (Four Stars)

“Black Comedy” Written by Peter Shaffer; Directed by Lizette M. Morris; Costume Designer: Erica Desautels. Presented by Happy Medium Theatre (HMT). Performances through June 22nd at the Factory Theatre, 791 Tremont Street, Boston.

Farce may be generally regarded as the silly stepchild of more sophisticated comedy, but that doesn’t mean staging a production that delivers laughs is as simple as finding a couple of actors adept at pratfalls and spit takes and dropping them into some insanely improbable predicament. The Happy Medium Theatre Company proves this by doing a nice job with Peter Shaffer’s imaginatively ridiculous “Black Comedy”, maintaining the madcap pace throughout while upping the degree of difficulty as the characters must behave as if they are fumbling about in the darkness.

The play is staged using a reversed lighting scheme, opening on a darkened stage as young sculptor Brindsley Miller and his new fiancee are preparing his apartment to show his work to a wealthy art collector while simultaneously entertaining her father to ask for her hand in marriage. A few minutes into the show there is a short circuit, and the stage is lit up to reveal the characters in the “dark”. It’s a funny framing device that creates a lot of opportunities for physical comedy throughout the show as the characters are invisible to each other, but not the audience.

The first farcical element in the play is that the ethically challenged Brindsley and his beautiful but bubble-headed debutant fiancee Carol Melkett have decided to “borrow” his neighbor’s tasteful and expensive antique furniture while he’s away in order to impress the art collector as well as Carol’s father, Colonel Melkett. The second involves Brindsley’s failure to be completely honest about his relationship with former girlfriend Clea, who after dumping Brindsley and running off to Finland for six weeks, has decided to reconsider her decision. What could possibly go wrong? Anything and everything, especially when Brindsley’s flamingly gay caricature neighbor, Harold Gorringe (who also has a crush on Brindsley) returns prematurely, and Clea decides to come over to reconcile with her man (as she is figuratively in the dark about Carol). They join Colonel Melkett (who has taken an immediate and understandable dislike to Brindsley), straight-laced neighbor Miss Furnival, and London Power repairman and German immigrant Schuppanzigh (Tim Fairley in a fine comic turn) in the pitch dark at the tiny apartment as they all wait for both the wealthy German art collector and the power to return.

Brooks Reeves is terrific as the scoundrel Brindsley as he frantically rushes about trying to put out the self-made fires of his various relationship problems while also trying to put back his neighbor’s furniture under the cover of darkness. Louise Hamill plays the dimwitted fiancee unsympathetically well, and Mike Budwey generates some laughs maintaining his controlled rage at the horrible choice that the apple of his eye has made in Brindsley. Audrey Lynn Sylvia does a nice job as the stodgy Miss Furnival and Alyssa Osiecki has some very funny moments as the no-holds-barred Clea. The cast plays off each other well and keeps the frenetic pace up throughout the production. Farce is not easy to pull off, with its lightning dialogue exchanges and unpredictable physical comedy but the Happy Medium crew keeps the show humming.

This play debuted in 1965 and the production is kept in that time frame, which allows costumer Erica Desautels to have some fun with the character’s outfits – particularly the women – as Carol looks like one of the sorority girls from Animal House and the more liberated Clea is dressed in pre-hippie era garb like Marlo Thomas in ‘That Girl”. The very funny Mike DiLoreto plays the over-the-top gay Harold Gorringe to the hilt in a way that wouldn’t seem realistic today, but it fits in fine with this period piece. The tiny (49 seats) Factory Theatre space keeps the audience close to the action, which is great because there’s so much going on. If you’d like to a well-performed farce at a reasonable price, this is your ticket.