Black Comedy and The Public Eye--two one-act plays by British playwright Peter Shaffer now claiming digs on the Loeb's mainstage--are, you can't escape it, the products of a weazy old middle-class theater, but the ingeniousness of their author and the ingenuousness of this cast does as much as can be done in the way of stirring up the tired blood. Shaffer's forte, it would seem, is to take up the basic elements of cliche (a triangle of husband, detective and adulterous wife in the case of The Public Eye and a where-were-you-when-the-lights-went-out French farce for the purposes of Black Comedy), give them an added, knowing twist, and reissue them as spruced up bits of comedy quite capable of laughing at even themselves. (And at their audiences too, Mr. Shaffer?) Happily it works, even if only about 50 per cent of the time.
The miss, for me at least, was the curtain raiser, The Public Eye. Set in an accountant's office--overwhelmed, I should say, since Robert McCleary's mile-high flats make the set just about as intimate as the rare books room of the British Museum--the play consists largely of dialogue between a stuffy English husband-type (John Archibald), a loudly attired private detective (Peter Kazaras), and, eventually, the frighteningly energetic wife (Melissa Mueller) who is the subject of their investigation. And I'm afraid that's about all I can tell if I'm not to give away the one twist of plot. I would suspect that, since most of the play's humor is sadly dated in a late fifties-early sixties sort of way (there are jokes about psychoanalysts, coffee bars and Kismet), the play's real interest lies in the fledgling hints it gives of Shaffer's present London and Broadway smash Sleuth. Suffice to say that director Liz Coe has struggled valiantly to keep things moving (though when the blocking finally resorts to sending the actors up and down ladders exhaustion might have legitimately claimed the better part of valor) and Peter Kazaras as the insatiable detective has some bemused fun with his role.
Black Comedy--as you may now have guessed, it's the winner of the two--is also based on a single gimmick. But, in its case, the gimmick begs to be told. Premise is: Brindsley Miller, a mod young sculptor played with vigor by Pope Brock, is expecting a visit from Georg Bamberger (John Archibald again), richest man in the world (and not a little like Howard Hughes), who just might buy one of Brindsley's sculptures, thereby permitting the sculptor to marry his fiancee, whose father is also expected to drop in before evening's end--WHEN--the lights in the flat go out. Makes things a bit thick for Brindsley you can be sure, but, since the audience can watch as the complications follow in the would-be dark, this is one black-out you might wish would never end.
Of course, you have to have an appetite for slapstick if you're to stomach it at all, but that's not really asking too much. Here, the energy of Coe's direction finds its just rewards and her complicated feats of staging can only improve in timing and finesse as the play continues in its run. Joining Brock (who, to his credit, goes so far as to roll down an entire flight of stairs) are Penny Goslin as his fiancee, Sylvia Kingsbury as a neighboring old lady and Tim Clark as the prospective father. All three manage to match Brock in calisthenics, but each, in his or her way, adopts a bit too much of an accent to be held accountable at all times for their words. In contrast, Ralph Martin contributes an arch bit as a homosexual art collector who multiplies the confusion--and, in these days of gay lib, his ability to get away with a lisp and a swish attests to a great degree of style. Kazarus reappears as an immigrant repairman and Melissa Mueller shows up again as Clea, a second girlfriend whose exact motivation--if you're even inclined to bother about such matters after her most striking entrance--could be slightly troublesome. This time McCleary's set--an enormous funhouse of a room with hints of Aubrey Beardsley in its moldings--has little to do with its owners by any realistic measure, but is tremendous fun nonetheless. And Steve Downs's lighting doesn't miss a cue.
I do leave you, however, with a warning. Apparently the Loeb has joined David Merrick's example and is now raising its curtain at eight. (At least, that's what happened Thursday night when I arrived twenty minutes late.) My spies tell me--and I have long awaited the day when I could pass on the reports of spies--that The public Eye began as slowly as could be guessed, but that there is an amusing enough eating scene right at the beginning of the show. You might make a note not to miss it.