By Vicki Weisfeld
One of Noel Coward’s best-known plays, Blithe Spirit, which opened August 18 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey once again proves its lasting ability to appeal. Directed by Victoria Mack, the production runs through September 2.
Conceived during London’s 1941 Blitz and brought to the page in a six-day writing frenzy, this quirky, light-hearted comedy was meant to counteract the gloom overtaking the country as battlefield deaths mounted and nation collapse seemed quite possible. It became one of the West End’s longest running non-musical productions, with almost 2,000 performances.
This lively production moves along briskly, retaining Coward’s farcical elements, though for me, at least, condensing some of that would be appreciated. A bit of business funny the first time isn’t as amusing on the fourth or fifth go. Still, the author’s ability to craft a witty epigram that works beautifully and seems perfectly apt seventy years later is firmly intact. My favorite, out of the mouth of Charles Condomine: “It is discouraging how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.”
Charles, the husband of the story (played by Brent Harris), lives apparently quite happily with his wife Ruth (Kate MacCluggage) in that elegant, upperclass English drawing-room style . With unreliable assistance from their well-intentioned but inept maid Edith (Bethany Kay), they put on a dinner party, to which they invite their friends Dr. Bradman (Ames Anderson) and his wife (Monette Magrath).
The party entertainment will be a séance conducted by a local spiritualist, Madame Arcati (Tina Stafford). The séance unexpectedly conjures the ghost of Charles’s first wife Elvira (Susan Maris), whom only Charles can see and hear. She interacts with him, though for everyone else, his reactions to her are inexplicable (too many martinis?), and he tries to pass them off as a joke.
Intent on disrupting Charles’s current marriage, by one means or another, Elvira is a devious and unsympathetic character. Coward thus avoided evoking the sadness that might have accompanied a play so concerned with the death of a young person. (Note that the play ends slightly differently than the movie version, in which Rex Harrison played Charles.)
Harris, who was brilliant in STNJ’s production of Tartuffe earlier this season, shines again, and MacCluggage, as Ruth, extracts every bit of nuance from her character. Stafford and Kay both have the opportunity for broad physical comedy and make the most of it, delightfully. Somehow, the character of Elvira didn’t work for me; she was so slinky and manipulative, it was hard to understand Charles’s attraction, in either her corporeal or spiritual form.
The set, a model of the type, was designed by Charles Calvert; costumes (especially beautiful ones for Madame Arcati) were by Hugh Hanson; lighting trickery by Michael Giannitti; sound by Käri Berntson; and Alison Cote is production stage manager.
Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!