CHARLESTOWN — A play with 66 scenes sounds like a marathon, but at the Charlestown Working Theater, Caryl Churchill’s “The After-Dinner Joke” whizzes by in 75 minutes. Originally a TV drama aired on the BBC in 1978, this black comedy calls for a boatload of characters that include an Arab gardener, a guerrilla, a cowboy, a thief who robs a bank and runs along the roof of a train, a sheik who buys Marks & Spencer, and a pop star who’s found Jesus but can’t keep 10-year-old girls from finding him. Whistler in the Dark manages with just five actors, though at times the multicasting stretches credibility.
Churchill’s four principal characters are less exotic than the cowboy and the sheik. Selby is personal secretary to the sales manager for Price’s Bedding, but when she tells old man Price, who also has a string of launderettes and Chinese restaurants, that she wants to work for a charity, he sends her out to raise money for the five nonprofits he’s involved with. It’s an education, both for Selby and for the audience. Her boss, Dent, tells her, “A charity has to be run like any other business. It exists to make money.” And Selby doesn’t exactly have the Midas touch: She asks a snake-obsessed mayor “where the people with money are, so I can get it off them,” and later she proposes a campaign with a photo of a child who has starved to death and the words “This is your fault.”