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.”
Some scenes are a particular challenge to stage. When a woman asks whether a shoe store has the model she wants in size 5, the clerk drags out a fishing boat. When a car buyer asks how soon he can take delivery, the salesman answers, “Right away,” and trots out 50 calves. Whistler in the Dark artistic director Meg Taintor solves those problems by depicting the boat and the calves as cartoons on a video screen at one end of the long, narrow playing space. There’s also video of the scene where three city councilors — one Liberal, one Labour, one Conservative — raise money by letting themselves be hit in the face with custard pies.
The best thing about Whistler’s production is Meredith Stypinski’s Selby. Dressed in a pink cardigan and jeans, she’s blissfully starry-eyed and obtuse, whether she’s being hit — live — with a custard pie in the face or kidnapped by Guatemalan guerrillas and held for ransom. And her performance is choreographed from start to finish, her face and body reacting to every moment.
The other four actors, all in multiple parts, have a harder time of it. It seems odd, in a play where Selby is hedged in by male authority figures, to have women portraying men. Neither Lorna Nogueira’s Price nor Melissa Barker’s mayor is especially convincing; Joseph D. Freeman is a callow thief, and Bob Mussett doesn’t make a very commanding Dent in his turned-up dungarees. The quartet have almost no costume changes to help them distinguish one character from the next, so the blitz of scenes can get confusing. And they play their roles — mostly bad guys — with an archness that tips “The After-Dinner Joke” toward polemic. Churchill does invite that approach, but it’s one a theater company doesn’t have to accept. Still, Whistler gets the punch line across.