Shaffer Double Bill Is Farce With a Capital F

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

PETER SHAFFER'S 1967 double bill of one acts, ``Black Comedy and White Liars,'' has been revived at Broadway's Roundabout Theatre, but the pairing notwithstanding, it is ``Black Comedy'' that provides most of the fun. As the play begins, Brindsley (Peter MacNicol) and his fiancee, Carol (Anne Bobby), are in pitch darkness, talking about their plans for a cocktail party later that evening. As the discussion continues normally, the audience shifts in its seats, wondering if there is a lighting problem. Suddenly, the lights shine brightly, but the characters act as if they have been plunged into darkness, the result of a blackout. The idea of light standing in for darkness is an ingenious theatrical device, and the audience laughter of recognition is infectious.

Brindsley is a sculptor, and he and Carol are awaiting the arrival of a rich collector. In the meantime, three guests complicate matters: a dotty older neighbor, Miss Furnival (Nancy Marchand); Carol's stern military father, Colonel Melkett (Keene Curtis); and the persnickety neighbor Harold (Brian Murray). Harold's untimely arrival is a problem, since Brindsley has appropriated furniture from Harold's apartment to impress the collector.

The funniest action of the play concerns Brindsley's efforts to switch the furniture in the two apartments under cover of the blackout. MacNicol, not a particularly dignified performer to begin with, reaches Jerry Lewis-like heights of maniacal buffoonery and seems to risk physical injury the way he careens about the stage. But all of the performers have their hilarious moments; Marchand is particularly funny, and Murray gets laughs just with his bugged-out eyes.

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Eventually, the goings-on become too far-fetched even by the standards of farce, and the play wears thin before the end of its brief 75-minute running time. But there are more than enough laughs in this cleverly conceived diversion.

``White Liars,'' the curtain-raiser, features Marchand (giving an expert performance) as the Baroness Lemberg, a tattered fortune-teller at a dilapidated seaside resort, and David Aaron Baker and MacNichol as two clients who involve her in a game of manipulation.

As it turns out, things are not quite what they seem, on several levels, but the final surprise probably had a lot more impact (and was more difficult to guess) in 1967 than it is today. Like ``Black Comedy,'' ``White Liars'' is dependent on gimmicks to provide its pleasures, but here the manipulation is not so enjoyable.

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