With the exception of "Gaite Parisienne," there aren't a whole lot of comic ballets. This is probably a function of the high seriousness of the dance world, which also explains why "Gaite" is so seldom revived.
One of the great virtues of Peter Shaffer's dazzling comic ballet "Black Comedy" is that you don't even need an orchestra to perform it. All you need is a cast of gifted farceurs. If they can do all the intricate maneuvers that Shaffer's script requires, the stage is alive with an effervescent visual music.
This is certainly the case with the Roundabout's revival, which has been choreographed with suitable dizziness by Gerald Gutierrez (with able assist from stunt director Linwood Harcum).
"Black Comedy" begins in darkness. The characters state some bald exposition and then exclaim that the lights have gone out. When "their" lights have gone out the stage lights suddenly come on, and, for the rest of the play, all their movements have the exaggerated quality of people groping their way in pitch dark.
The plot has to do with art objects, temporarily purloined furniture and betrayed love. More than that, you do not need to know.
To do "Black Comedy," you first need a virtuoso premier danseur, and Peter MacNicol fills the bill splendidly. He doesn't have to lift ballerinas, but he does have to execute some tricky lifts with antique chairs and some snappy jetes with his knees strapped. I doubt that Peter Martins could do them better. Needless to say, he also handles the verbal giddiness of the play with aplomb.
He is supported deliciously by Nancy Marchand as a tipsy spinster, Brian Murray as a fussbudget, Kate Mulgrew as an inventive mistress and Robert Stattel as a philosophical repairman. Anne Bobby is a bit shrill as MacNicol's girlfriend.
"White Liars," the curtain-raiser, is a specious play with good moments for actors. David Aaron Baker handles a fiery monologue well. Nancy Marchand has affecting moments as a bogus baroness.
There are monsters - indeed, sacred monsters - in both halves of "White Liars & Black Comedy," the Peter Shaffer double bill at the Roundabout. It goes without saying that there are liars, sexual and otherwise, in both halves, just as there were when the same two plays, more or less, were a Broadway hit back in 1967.
"Black Comedy," which is the second, hilarious, half, is a gimmick piece, but what a clever gimmick, borrowed, the playwright notifies us, from classical Chinese repertory. When the lights are up full, the people on stage are supposed to be fumbling around in the total darkness occasioned by a blown fuse. When the stage is pitch dark, we hear the actors behaving as if they were in full light.
For the first few minutes, in fact, the audience sitting in a blackened house - that's us - may not quite know what the hell's going on. The disembodied voices of a young man and a young woman in a London flat - he's Brindsley, she's Carol - giggle and google about some furniture they've "borrowed" from the chap across the hall so as to impress a millionaire who's coming to look at Brindsley's sculpture. Suddenly, the fuse blows and the stage is flooded with light.
From there, ladies and gentlemen, it's off to the races, with Peter MacNicol, that nice young fellow from "Sophie's Choice," strangling himself in a phone cord, crashing headlong/seatlong down a flight of stairs, weave/waving his way back and forth across the premises like a blind tropical fish, patting in frenzy around and around a doorframe for the doorknob, toting incredible chairs and tables through a doubly incredible human obstacle course, like Crazy Legs Hirsch.
The problem, you see - because Brindsley cannot see - is to sneak Harold's cherished Regency furniture back into Harold's place under the nose of Harold himself, not to mention the even sharper nose of the terrible-tempered Col. Melkett (Keene Curtis), parent to this twit of a girl (Anne Bobby) chattering away about "sexy-poo" and how she feels "just like Mrs. Michelangelo."
It is really worth the price of admission just to see and hear Brian Murray as huffy-fluffy Harold - who has hitherto considered himself a rather special friend of Brindsley's - taking pains, with a face somewhere between a marshmallow, a preserved prune, and a sarcastic question mark, to inform the young lady: "There wasn't a Mrs. Michelangelo, actually."
But there was a truly sexy, naughty Clea (Kate Mulgrew), who'd preceded the twit as sharer of Brindsley's bedroom, and who had just dropped in for a look as the lights dropped out. MacNicol recognizes her with mingled panic and passion when his cupped hands accidentally encounter her posterior.
Further stoking the scene is Miss Furnival the landlady (Nancy Marchand), who has dropped in for a nip, and another nip, and another...
I guess you get the idea that this kind of farce is a director's dream. The director is Gerald Gutierrez, and he and his actors will have you aching. As I said, a gimmick. So?
In "White Liars," the evening's opener, the monsters are three: a leather-jacketed Beatles/Stones type rock star (David Aaron Baker), the mod-suited Brian Epstein type manager (Peter MacNicol) who created him, and the bizarre old fortune teller on a Brighton pier (Nancy Marchand) to whom they've come with a problem over a girl. Or what seems like a problem with a girl. Or what seems like who created what. Or what seems like a fortune teller. Think hard; laugh later.
Very occasionally, a single gimmick is enough to make a play's reputation, and Peter Shaffer certainly hit on one when, nearly 30 years ago, he conceived the idea for "Black Comedy." The one-act play -- which is paired with another short Shaffer piece, "White Liars," in a revival by the Roundabout Theater Company -- ingeniously sets a social farce in the darkness of a London apartment after a fuse has blown. The darkness, of course, exists only for the people onstage, since everything that happens after the electricity has gone, in the world of the play, is performed in a blaze of stage lights amid John Lee Beatty's vibrant Pop/Op setting.
Since its New York debut in 1967, with a cast that included Michael Crawford, Lynn Redgrave and Geraldine Page, "Black Comedy" has had a healthy life in American community and university theaters, and one can see why. It is, for its first half-hour, almost foolproof comically. It not only offers a novel occasion for the eternal gymnastics of elemental farce: people falling down stairs, bumping into doors and furniture and mistakenly groping each other. It also, in showing twittish characters trying to maintain their customary social rituals in a world deprived of visual cues, coaxes the latent absurdity out of those rituals, and even the process of mixing a cocktail courts burlesque disaster. As the evening progresses, though, it requires considerable finesse to disguise the fact that there is something sour at its center.
At the Roundabout, the laughter still mounts steadily as the play's caddish hero, an opportunistic young sculptor named Brindsley Miller (Peter MacNicol), tries to salvage one of the most important evenings of his life: the night in which he is to meet both the militaristic father of his debutante fiancee and a millionaire arts patron who could make his career. For reasons not worth explaining, Miller must shift the furniture in his apartment to his next-door neighbor's. And even though Mr. MacNicol portrays awkwardness awkwardly (and forgivably, since he evidently injured himself early in the performance I saw), the process -- which involves much writhing on the ground and battles with rebellious telephone wires, handbags and rocking chairs -- seems to act like nitrous oxide on many of the people watching it.
For much of the play's first half, the audience's laughter rides right over the dialogue being spoken onstage, which is, as a matter of fact, exactly what Mr. Shaffer, according to notes in his own script, intended. However, once the initial wave of chuckles subsides and we start to listen to what is being said, we realize that Mr. Shaffer has created a set of characters whom we don't necessarily enjoy spending time with.
The play is, rather tediously, built around farcical archetypes perfumed with a quintessentially 60's scent of sexual license, and one's enjoyment of it depends directly on one's tolerance for such bits as a flamboyant gay antiques dealer misreading Brindsley's whispered suggestion to his girl friend as a personal invitation, or an inhibited spinster's being mistakenly felt up and realizing she enjoys it.
This all may have seemed seductively risque in the mid-60's, but such scenes have long since become standard fare in British sex comedies with smirky titles and American sitcoms like "Three's Company." They require more than archness or slapstick to make them seem fresh again, and the director, Gerald Gutierrez, can never manage that metamorphosis nor disguise the essential distaste Mr. Shaffer seems to feel for his characters.
Most of the largely talented cast have been seen to better advantage elsewhere. Mr. MacNicol plays Brindsley with much open-mouthed grimacing, and, attired and coiffed like a nebbishy Herman's Hermit, he is never convincing, as it is essential he be, as a sexual magnet for three of the play's characters. As the antique-obsessed neighbor, the gifted Brian Murray is doing what seems to be an acrid, gay version of Jack Benny.
The evening's chief pleasures come from the redoubtable Nancy Marchand and a young actress named Anne Bobby, who charmingly convey the effect that living in darkness might have on two diametrically different personalities. Even embodying that moldiest of comic conventions -- the teetotaler who gets happily drunk -- Ms. Marchand is delightful as the introverted spinster who drags her strange interior world to the surface in an environment where no one can see her. Her delirious, drunken shuffle, which she performs as if moving to a slow jazz score in her head, and her loopy meditation on the softness of the skin of millionaires are absurdist exercises in self-imploding reticence.
Clad in a silly pink minidress that looks like a lampshade and with her bow of a mouth set in a pout of frustration, Ms. Bobby is the opposite: a gregarious, narcissistic, upper-crust girl who can't understand why her rigorously affected mannerisms aren't working. Watching her blowing a kiss in the wrong direction or clinking a ring on her finger against a cocktail tumbler to command attention, one can't help melting a little, even if we aren't meant to. She and Ms. Marchand nearly succeed in giving a heart to this mechanical farce, and they both deserve medals.
"Black Comedy" has always been saddled with another one-act play, "White Liars." Mr. Shaffer has extensively rewritten it since it was first performed here as "White Lies," but it remains a predictable play of deliberately drab lyricism about the ways in which people delude themselves. Ms. Marchand appears as an embittered down-and-out fortuneteller in a decaying seaside resort, and Mr. MacNicol and David Aaron Baker are the mysteriously linked young men who consult her.
The three actors in "White Liars" seem to have difficulty forging any vital engagement with the material, and they have been directed to deliver their big revelatory monologues baldly to the audience. Now, Mr. Gutierrez may be trying to say something quite literal about people not meeting each other's eyes, but the effect is to make an already static play seem petrified. One finds oneself uncomfortably measuring the dead air in the beats between lines and contemplating how the handsome Ms. Marchand, in a fuzzy wig and makeup of rouged cheeks and a beauty mark, has been transformed into an image of Louis XIV on a humid day.
The evening is obviously not a worthy crown for what has been an exceptionally fine season at the Roundabout. However, die-hard farce aficionados can be guaranteed at least one long stretch of pleasantly executed slapstick. And -- no small point -- the theater's air-conditioning works perfectly.