Wow, Noel Coward sure knows how to shake up a room, and make intergalactic hanky-panky palatable. 1st Stage Theatre’s Blithe Spirit is a soaring production that delivers delicious bon mots (“good words”) and just plain fun. Its cheeky premise—a little chauvinistic, but hey, it’s the ‘40s—what if you had your former wife back again, vying for your attention?
Playwright Noel Coward was an influential talent of the art scene in England of the time—a composer, actor, and director. Think of him as Brittania’s Orson Welles–if not in inventiveness, then in substance of work. He penned Blithe Spirit, legend has it, in only 6 days in the middle of the 1941 Blitz of England, leaving London for a time after his flat was bombed out. It turned out to be a marvelous construct for a play, (it calls to mind Ira Levin’s Deathtrap) and set attendance records for a war weary populace yearning for escapism.
An great evening of fanciful frolicking
At the outset, we are breezily brought into the parlor, where we meet well-to-do author Charles and his wife Ruth (Steven Carpenter and Liz Mamana). On the pretext of research for an upcoming book, he invites a local medium to conduct a séance at his house. The scene is full of titters and laughs by them as their friends Mr. and Mrs. Bradman fill out the circle.
The medium, a Madame Arcati (the winning against-type casting of Evan Crump), holds the séance where—oops—she inadvertently summons Charles’s first wife, Elvira (Dani Stoller), who has been dead for seven years. In a flowing gossamer blue truffle, she eases around the room reeking of mischief. Madame Arcati leaves after the séance, unaware that she has summoned Elvira. Surprise, surprise, only Charles can see or hear her, and his second wife, Ruth, thinks he is a bit touched until Elvira sends a vase to her out of thin air. Imagine the fun in this household! Conjures up memories of I Dream of Jeannie. The spirit Elvira is cloying and conniving and makes efforts to disrupt Charles’s current marriage, finally sabotaging his car in the hope of killing him so that he will join her in the spirit world, but it is Ruth rather than Charles who drives off and is killed.
Subsequent visits by the Madame create more confusion and actually conjures up a visible Ruth, who must have been in that way station place. This now creates two attitudinal spirits in the house!
The show carries on in this whimsical way as Charles deals with his ‘favorite’ wife, and how to get peace in his fractured household. Besides another marathon session from Madame Arcati, no more can be revealed of the supernatural events!
Director Lee Mikeska Gardner has a wonderful cast to work with and doesn’t waste their talents. Noel Coward’s urbane banter is easy on the ears but a challenge for many, and Carpenter, as Charles, handles the fun throwaway lines with ease. He is especially good in the hint of deviousness shown at the whole wife balancing dilemma. Mamana, as Ruth, plays put out well and expresses more in a single glance of disapproval than many monologues I’ve heard.
The two wives act as perfect foils for each other, Mamana as the confident, self-assured woman who dissolves into despair as fate that forces her to share her home with her husband’s late wife. Stoller, both sultry and mischievous, is easy to watch.
Finally, the Madame and Mikeska’s male casting of Crump the medium are inspired; and with a strategic placement of a covering over the Adam’s Apple, it is seamless. Crump talks in a snooty, arcane manner, constantly sniffing for ectoplasm, in a nice, eccentric way. Totally believable.
The set design by Steven Royal was inspired. It had an airy, flowing feel to it, with large open rectangles serving as windows leading to a cloudy blue backdrop that easily allowed the passage of spirits–a galactic highway, if you will. The stage floor was a swirl of elegant faux granite cuts, further lending to the openness.
An great evening of fanciful frolicking. What’s better than a good old supernatural cat fight?
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes with a 15 minute intermission.
Blithe Sprit is presented at the 1st Stage Theatre in Tysons Corner, 1524 Spring Hill Rd, McLean, VA 22102 from May 24 to June 16, 2013. For tickets call the information line at (703) 854-185 or click here.