Peter Shaffer (author of “Equus”) wrote these two plays in the mid-1960s. Shaffer rewrote “The White Liars” several times, but after seeing it performed by the Louisville Repertory Company this weekend, the story remains flat to me, and to most who have seen it.
In an English coastal holiday town in the swinging ’60s, a couple of young guys visit a fortune teller who talks to her dead father. She claims to be the “Baroness of the Holy Roman Empire.” The guys are neither mods nor rockers (nor mockers). They’re just big phonies. The banal message is: Be yourself. Don’t borrow other people’s suffering to make yourself look better.
The heavy reliance on long expository speeches stops the action in its tracks. As the characters raved on about their pasts, I lost interest. However, the actors do a fine job with the script, and the set is suitably tawdry, as befits these pathetic characters.
The second of the two-part production, “Black Comedy,” zips right along. That’s because the action takes place in the present! Here’s the gimmick: Though the stage is lit, the cast portrays characters who are in total darkness. The Louisville Repertory Co. actors rose admirably to the challenge of stumbling about in a dark apartment, and the audience roared.
Without giving too much away, here’s the set-up: Young sculptor Brindsley hosts a party to get a rich arts patron to buy his pretentious artwork. His fiancée, Carol, invites her militaristic father to meet Brindsley. To impress their guests, they’ve “borrowed” expensive furniture from Harold, the prissy antiques dealer from next door (without his permission). They blow a fuse and all hell breaks loose in this archetypical farce.
For the most part, the actors speak slowly and clearly to allow the audience to understand their British accents. Dan Sawtelle is remarkable as the opportunistic artist groping his way through the dark (a metaphor for life?), trying to keep his secrets under wraps. He flails his arms wildly while grimacing, even tripping down a flight of stairs. He’s the perfect art weasel and sleazy boyfriend. Victoria Lewis chirps her lines like the spoiled British brat she’s supposed to be. Sean Childress could have stepped right out of a British sitcom with his flawless rendition of Carol’s father. Director Amy Lewis wisely cast JoAnn Kime as Miss Furnival, the dotty neighbor lady who’s afraid of the dark. Unlike the others, Kime doesn’t use a British accent, and it heightens her character’s adorable awkwardness.
My award for best supporting actor goes to Sidney Hymson, as the lock-jawed Harold. Hymson never looks another character in the eye, just as one would behave in a darkened room. He totally inhabits his Fauntleroyish character. Hymson’s over-the-top, George Sanders-esque declarations delight, as here: “I hate to keep clothes in a suitcase longer than I absolutely have to. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a creased suit.”
Although the theme of “Black Comedy” is similar to “The White Liars” (lies lead to calamity), the delivery is far superior and one of the best offerings of the season.