Black Comedy” and “The Private Ear

Since it’s summertime, the BYU Theater Department has decided to let some of the kids go nuts and slap together their own show — a wise decision, given the caliber of the students involved and the quality of the finished product.

“Black Comedy” and “The Private Ear” are one-act plays set in mid-60s London and written by Peter Shaffer. Directors Chris Bentley and Adam Boulter obviously intended for the the two plays to fit well together, given their common author and setting; unfortunately, they have little else in common — “Black Comedy” is a farce; “Private Ear” is a poignant comedy/drama — and the difference winds up making the very good individual parts not add up to much of a whole.

The evening begins auspiciously. The Margetts Theatre is decked out in mid-60s paraphernalia, including several vintage couches placed throughout the audience where some of the chairs should be. Before the show officially begins, Jjana Valentiner Morrill performs a Christopher Durang monologue called “Mrs. Sorken,” in which the title character gives a perfectly daft and absurd history of drama and theater. Morrill is a kitschy delight in her time onstage, making it well worth getting to the theater 10 minutes early to see her.

Then comes “Black Comedy.” It begins with starving artist Brindsley Miller (Tom Hindmarsh) and his girlfriend Carol Melkett (Melissa Yacktman) in his apartment, discussing what is to take place that night: Not only is her strict military father (Javen Ronald Tanner) supposed to come visit so that Brindsley can ask for Carol’s hand in marriage, but millionaire Georg Bamberger (Matthew J. Morrill) is also supposed to show up and hopefully buy some of Brindsley’s art. Brindsley is poor, though, and doesn’t want his visitors to know it, so he has borrowed the elegant furniture of his neighbor, Harold Gorringe (Peter Brown), who is out of town and would be furious if he knew Brindsley had taken his stuff.

The play is already setting up some marvelous comic possibilities, but there’s also something else: The entire time Brindsley and Carol have been discussing this, the stage has been in total darkness. To them, however, the apartment is lit normally. Then, there’s a power outage in Brindsley’s apartment building. The stage lights come on, allowing the audience to finally see them — but to the characters, they’re now in darkness. The rest of the play is done that way, with the characters moving around as though in the dark, nearly bumping into each other, talking about people whom they think aren’t there, and getting away with things they couldn’t get away with if the other characters could see them.

The light/dark flip-flop is a brilliant gimmick, and it works beautifully. Some bits are choreographed masterfully, especially when Harold returns unexpectedly and Brindsley tries to move the furniture back to his apartment without him knowing it. Drinks are passed, chairs are lifted, and people move around, all barely missing each other and unaware of their close encounters.

Hindmarsh is excellent as the exasperated and frantic Brindsley, making the most of a physically demanding role. Other standouts in this ensemble of wackos include Emmelyn Thayer as Miss Furnival, a neighbor lady who, in the dark, decides to give up her “no-drinking” policy, culminating in a crazed, delusional monologue delivered atop a coffee table; and Joel R. Wallin as the German electrician with a maniacal laugh. Peter Brown is also particularly good as the outrageously gay and prissy Harold Gorringe.

“Black Comedy” is a busy, silly play, with a lot of activity and plenty of blink-and-you-miss-it bits of comedy. It is gleefully devoid of any depth whatsoever, and it revels giddily in its mindlessness.

After intermission, one might expect “The Private Ear” to be something similar, and in fact, it begins that way. Aaron Johnston plays a fellow named Tchaik (short for Tchaikovsky), and he’s nervously trying to get ready for a date that evening. Seems a woman he met at a classical music concert is coming over for dinner, and he’s terrified. His first few moments of frantically trying to iron his pants and get dressed hint at more of the lunacy we saw in “Black Comedy.”

This is not to be, however. “The Private Ear” turns out to be much quieter — a little too quiet, in fact, particularly in Javen Ronald Tanner’s performance as Tchaik’s friend Ted (perhaps Tanner is just tired from having yelled throughout much of “Black Comedy”). “Private Ear” suffers from a bit of a malaise, as much of the first 10 minutes are rather low-key and slow.

Tchaik has invited Ted to have dinner there, too, because Ted is a swinger and can show Tchaik how to behave in front of the lady. Unfortunately, Ted is a bit TOO smooth, and Tchaik is a bit too stuffy, and the woman (Emmelyn Thayer) winds up falling more for Ted.

The exact situation easily could be played for laughs, but it was not written that way. Instead, we see two very different characters, Ted and Tchaik, both of whom are at fault. Ted is too much of a bachelor, and Tchaik is too nerdy. But Johnston plays Tchaik as being so sweetly, endearingly, charmingly uncool that he easily wins over the audience.

“The Private Ear” has funny moments, particularly involving the opera records Tchaik forces his date to listen to, but it is overall a drama, and a rather sad one at that. All three actors turn in fine performances. The only problem is its forced connection with its polar opposite, “Black Comedy.”

Go see this show bearing in mind that you’re going to see two completely different plays. Both are excellent — one has an ensemble cast that has no weak link and is hysterically funny; the other is dramatic and heart-felt, with emotions attached to it — and together, they make for an evening of solid theater.

I really think the only major flaw in this show is putting two plays together that are so different. I fully expected "Private Ear" to be a comedy, and it's difficult to adjust when you realize something is not what you expected to be -- even when it's still very good.

I particularly enjoyed the '60s furniture scattered throughout the audience. I sat in a rather nice, old easy chair, and it was so much more comfortable than the regular Margetts Theatre seats. That alone made me enjoy the show more than I would have.