By George Basler
Put eight characters together in a dark room and throw in some outlandish situations with comic misadventures, and you have Black Comedy in a nutshell.
The play, which has been called a textbook example of a British drawing room farce, will open Friday (Feb. 10) and run for three weekends at the KNOW Theatre in downtown Binghamton. It features “trips, falls, slaps, screams and mistaken identities,” said Tim Gleason, KNOW’s artistic director who is directing the show.
Black Comedy is the work of Peter Shaffer best known for the plays Amadeus and Equus, both of which won Tony Awards and were later adapted by Shaffer for the screen. Unlike those intense philosophical dramas, Black Comedy is pure farce with no philosophical message in sight. As a New York Times reviewer said when the play opened, “It may not be a milestone in the development of English drama, but it is a very funny play.”
Black Comedy is something of a departure for KNOW Theatre. The company specializes in probing, sometimes off-beat dramas. But, explained Gleason, “I love the challenge of doing it (farce).” He knows the show well, having performed it back in the mid-1990s when he was starting out as an actor. KNOW has done it three times in the past.
“It’s funny, smart and puts the characters into odd situations,” Gleason said. The play hinges on a clever plot device: that light and dark are transposed When the stage is lit, the characters are supposed to be in darkness, not able to see each other or their surroundings. When the stage is dark, the opposite is true.
“I love that the audience is let in on secrets that nobody on the stage can see, because they’re in the dark,” Gleason said.
The plot is pure silliness. A struggling young artist and his fiancée have “borrowed” (read: misappropriated) some expensive antique furniture from a neighbor’s apartment to impress an elderly millionaire art collector. Just as the collector is about arrive, a power outage unexpectedly plunges the apartment into darkness. The neighbor also unexpectedly comes home early, forcing the young artist, a sculptor, to return the furniture in the dark.
Other characters — including the sculptor’s former girlfriend, the fiancée’s stuffy father and a prim and proper upstairs neighbor who discovers the joy of alcohol — show up to further complicate matters.
The play has slapstick moments and is a “very physical comedy” that requires proper timing to work, Gleason said. Thus, he and the eight actors had to painstakingly choreograph their movements before moving on to character development, he said.
“The actors have to work a lot on not looking at each other in the dark, because they can’t see,” Gleason added.
Ryan Canavan, who is playing the struggling artist, said farce is always fun to do because it’s straight physical comedy in a setting where the actors have to play it absolutely seriously.
“My character is someone who thinks he’s clever but is actually too clever for his own good,” said Canavan, who has done farce in the past, notably in the Ti-Ahwaga Community Players production of Clue last season.
Qiana Watson, who is playing the prim neighbor, has previously acted in dramas, notably Gidion’s Knot at KNOW last season. This is her first farce, and she is relishing the change of pace. “I read the script and saw it’s not a drama,” she said. Her reaction was, “I love it!” she added, with a laugh.
Watson is getting a kick out of her comic character who goes from prim to tipsy as the play progresses. In drama you have to dig deep into emotions while in farce you can just have fun, she said.
And that’s what Black Comedy is all about.
IF YOU GO: Black Comedy runs weekends Feb. 10-26 at KNOW Theatre, 74 Carroll St., Binghamton. Friday and Saturday performances are at 8 p.m.; Sundays are at 3 p.m. Tickets are $25 (seniors, $20; students, $15) at www.knowtheatre.org. There is a pay-what-you-can night at 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23.