“I feel damp to my knickers!” was the double entendre that the sexually ambiguous Harold Gorringe (Joshua Mueller) used to describe the effects of being outside in a storm. Unbeknownst to both character and actor was the fact that in this context, the statement served triple duty. The preview audience for the Cal Poly Theatre and Dance Department’s production of “Black Comedy” was left doubled over, in tears and with potentially evacuated bladders, on multiple occasions over the course of its 80 ludicrous minutes.
The farcical British play, written by Peter Shaffer, follows a broke artist (Garret Lamoureux), his ex-girlfriend (Katryna Fogel), his fiancée (Sarah Gamblin), her father (Daniel Cook), two neighbors (Gabrielle Duong and Mueller) and a German electrician (Aidan Turner) as they navigate a web of lies during a power outage. The stage lights are on when the characters are in the dark, and they go out the moment light returns to the scene.
What goes on in the “dark” is fascinating, and it ought to be considering it makes up 95 percent of the show. During the blackout, the artist, Brindsley, must juggle the unexpected early arrival of a wealthy neighbor whose furniture he has borrowed (without permission) with the sudden appearance of his ex-girlfriend, as well as hard-nosed suspicion from his presumptive future father-in-law. Things don’t look good for poor Brindsley, a compulsive liar, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to wiggle out of that jam by any means necessary.
Pretending to be in complete darkness is no easy feat, and it adds several layers of thematic intricacy and hilarity to what is already a cleverly written script.
“One of the biggest challenges is when the lights are supposed to be off, how do you align yourself physically?” director Josh Machamer said. “What does that do in terms of understanding the particular circumstances?”
Watching each character blindly grope around the set, missing chairs and stubbing toes, never gets old. Even more interesting is the exceedingly fragile balance keeping the plot alive. Most of the time the only thing saving Brindsley from being exposed to the wrath of everyone around him is the darkness itself. Even then, an unending series of near-misses keeps anxiety high.
Feigned darkness was not the only test facing the actors. The script is set in 1967 London, meaning all the British characters must match the dialects native to that time and place. Asking a group of students in California to accomplish that in a few months is a tall order, but the cast took it in stride. Each member managed at least a serviceable accent that kept the show believable. Kudos to Mueller and Gamblin for going just a bit over the top with their inflections. A real Brit might cringe, but we crass Americans laugh.
We can’t help but laugh as this well-oiled machine of a sitcom steamrolls through increasingly tense situations. Mix in some perfectly-executed slapstick stunts, and this version of “Black Comedy” feels like a marvel of stage direction. It’s blissfully fun to watch. When the action is that engrossing, it hardly matters that there is no real lesson to be learned other than that lying has consequences, especially with the lights out. However, if one listens closely to the exaggerated monologues that pop up from time to time, they’ll be treated to some tasty nuggets of wisdom.
The electrician, an aspiring art critic with a degree in philosophy, made an acutely appropriate observation when prompted to view one of Brindsley’s works in the dark.
In the light, “it’s easy to get visual indigestion,” he said. “But it’s hard to find visual Alka-Seltzer.”
Luckily, the only indigestion any viewer of this production should suffer would arise from overuse of the abdominal muscles. It’s funny.
“Black Comedy” runs May 12-14 and 19-21 in Alex and Faye Spanos Theatre at 8 p.m., and unlike Brindsley’s view of his predicament, it begs to be seen. Don’t miss out on the Theatre and Dance Department’s last (and arguably best) scripted show this school year.
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Joshua Mueller’s name. It has been updated.