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It’s official: Arlington has gone barmy. A year after WETA launched WETA UK—bringing British programming, all the time, to Washington—the theater down the street from the PBS affiliate has launched what is beginning to feel like Signature UK. And—brilliant news—the first play from Signature’s new resident No Rules Theatre Company is so much funnier than Fawlty Towers reruns. Get off the couch, and go see it.
Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy, a 1965 farce first staged at England’s National Theatre, is the opening show of No Rules’ first season at Signature Theatre. No Rules was founded in 2008 by an ambitious group of University of North Carolina School of the Arts graduates. Their goal is to produce plays in both Washington and Winston-Salem, N.C., tapping into a network of young alumni eager to build their resumes.
It’s an arrangement that appears to be working, and has brought some unexpectedly big talent to the smaller of Signature’s two theater spaces. Director Matt Cowart, the UNCSA grad helming Black Comedy, has impressive credits, including a co-producer gig for the New York Philharmonic’s acclaimed semistaged production of Company starring Stephen Colbert and Patti LuPone. Here, it’s apparent Cowart approached Black Comedy with an eye for small-screen perfection. You will feel, sitting in the theater, like you’re watching a 1960s British sitcom with a live audience providing the laugh track.
The original production of Black Comedy starred a young Derek Jacobi as a starving artist attempting to sell sculptures to a German millionaire and meet his future father-in-law, all on the same night. Then a fuse blows. Out goes the power; in comes a motley parade of neighbors, a bumbling electrician, an ex-girlfriend, and, finally, the German millionaire.
One after another, the actors who come stumbling onstage are astonishingly funny and all on the same page in terms of putting on a farce: There is no slapstick or wink-wink mugging. The show opens with the theater in total darkness. We hear Kathryn Saffell’s Carol before we see her, clacking her heels, whining about the gaudy-poo furniture, and smacking lips with Jerzy Gwiazdowski, her “Brindsley-Poo.” Gwiazdowski, a Broadway vet who recently snagged a bit part in HBO’s Girls, is here for No Rules because—why else?—he went to UNCSA. When the lights go out in Brindsley’s flat, the lights go on in the theater, and we see the great detail that has gone into creating this abode of bohemian squalor, from the rusty vintage appliances to the box of Twinkles cereal on a shelf. (UNCSA grad John Bowhers designed the set.) The magic of the show is its carefully managed chaos—for example, when one lamp falls over, it knocks into a rocking chair, causing a cast member to go flying.
Shaffer’s witty dialogue belies the physical and situational comedy. You may recall he wrote Amadeus and Equus. Luckily, no horses are blinded in Black Comedy, the funniest play ever written for a cast kept in the dark.