Conceived during London’s 1941 Blitz and brought to the page in a six-day writing frenzy, Noël Coward’s quirky comedy Blithe Spirit was meant to counteract the gloom overtaking the country as battlefield deaths mounted and national collapse seemed possible. It became one of the West End’s longest running non-musical productions, with almost 2,000 performances.
The version currently at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, on stage through September 2, once again proves this work’s lasting ability to appeal. With spirited direction by Victoria Mack, it 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 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 elegant, upperclass English drawing-room style. With unreliable assistance from their well-intentioned maid Edith (Bethany Kay), they put on a dinner party for friends.
The party entertainment will be a séance conducted by a local spiritualist, Madame Arcati (Tina Stafford). What seemed a harmless bit of fun 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?). 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.
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!