When one thinks of templates of the ’60s — flares and sideburns among them — experimental stage comedies don’t necessarily come to mind, which is just one of the reasons why at least half of the West End’s newest double bill is such a serious hoot. In the past, Tom Stoppard’s 1968 “The Real Inspector Hound” and Peter Shaffer’s 1965 “Black Comedy” have been paired with other works by each playwright (“After Magritte” and “White Liars,” in turn). But if their equal casting requirements make them a natural match, this debut venture of Warehouse Prods., the commercial arm of the Donmar Warehouse, induces unnatural levels of laughter only after the intermission. Under the slow-to-ignite fuse of Greg Doran’s direction, this is an evening you could happily enter midway but for one proviso: No one will want to miss a minute of Anna Chancellor throughout.
The opening play of the pair is Stoppard’s, and it casts Chancellor — the venomous Patricia Preece of last season’s Broadway “Stanley” — as Lady Cynthia Muldoon, coolly dressed and coiffed owner of a country house that would seem to be hosting all manner of untoward chicanery. Outside, the fog is rolling in, but all Cynthia wants to do is play tennis or cards (weather depending), which isn’t easy to do gracefully when a corpse awaits discovery under the table.
Lady Cynthia, of course, is merely the heroine of the play-within-a-play, a “Mousetrap”-like whodunit that is being scrutinized by two theater critics, Moon (David Tennant) and Birdboot (Desmond Barrit). Most critics stay (thank heavens) on the sidelines, but not this pair, who are roped into Stoppard’s Agatha Christie pastiche before you can say Pirandello. The play is essentially a single conceit, and it hinges on a surprise that — once known — dissipates the sense of discovery of any subsequent viewing.
But a deliciously svelte Chancellor plays the mystery-within-the-metaphysics with a correctly proportioned straight face, and newcomers to the play will enjoy it simply for the over-elaborate explanations with which Nichola McAuliffe’s housekeeper, Mrs. Drudge, answers the phone — before, that is, the line goes dead.
There’s hardly a West End cast more alive than the same ensemble in “Black Comedy,” a seeming caprice whose meaning spins out in so many directions that your thoughts may feel as scrambled as the pop art of the era sent up in Robert Jones’ period-perfect design (not to mention Chancellor’s costume).
Shaffer’s inspiration came from seeing the Peking Opera perform a play set in darkness and yet staged in blinding light. Young sculptor Brindsley Miller (Tennant) is ready to receive a visit from “the richest man in the world” in his Chelsea flat when a blown fuse blows his best intentions, a mishap not helped by the early return of neighbor Harold (Barrit) whose antique furniture Brindsley has borrowed for the evening. Shaffer’s ruse: to illuminate the stage only once the characters are plunged into darkness, which means that the opening minutes are played in an auditorium entirely pitch-black.
” ‘Black Comedy’ is almost all gesture,” Shaffer once said of a play that, in retrospect, seems like a career anomaly given the effectively grandstanding theatrics of “Equus” and “Amadeus.” But this play is at least as rousing for an audience as Shaffer’s later, aria-prone ones, and not only in the “gestures” — Tennant doing a breaststroke across the stage to navigate the “dark” — that can make an audience weep with laughter. In Clea (Sara Crowe, struggling in a role originated by Maggie Smith) and Carol (played by Chancellor), the women vying for the somewhat bumptious Brindsley’s affections, Shaffer lampoons twice over the sort of nasal English woman who finds things “screamingly urgent.”
Screamingly funny is more like it, until one realizes the sharp perceptions couched within a fully worked-through stunt that virtually makes Howard Harrison’s lighting a ninth character in the play.
As Miss Furnival, the supposedly teetolitarian spinster with a fondness for heavily doctored “bitter lemon,” McAuliffe exposes the wounds of a lonely woman forsaking shyness on the way to confession and collapse. Gary Waldhorn’s Colonel may utter sweet nothings to daughter Carol (he calls her “dumpling”), but he’s no less xenophobic in the crunch than any of a room full of people whose none-too-attractive true colors shine brightly once the lights go out.
Doran’s direction is as exact here as it is slack in the first play, and the physical demands require a precision equivalent perhaps only to “Noises Off.” (Quite how Tennant maneuvers the onstage staircase is a mystery worthy of Birdboot and Moon’s attention.) But as relationships are rent asunder and prejudices made plain, one sees the truly inspired reversal that lifts the play beyond a mere lark.
Yes, in “Black Comedy” light is dark and dark is light, but its comic mayhem notwithstanding, the play’s true inversion is this: For an apparent farce, the play hovers very close to tragedy.