Blithe Spirit

Blithe Spirit

Brent Harris, Kate MacCluggage, Tina Stafford; photo: Jerry Dalia

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 Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

A Song at Twilight

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey

The F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, Madison, NJ

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey opened its 2016 season with Noël Coward’s A Song At Twilight, directed by Paul Mullins. Coward wrote it in 1965, the first in a trio of plays that take place in a single suite in a Swiss hotel (you’re welcome, Neil Simon), called the Suite in Three Keys. He wanted “to act once more before I fold my bedraggled wings,” as he said, and he wrote himself a juicy role here.

As the play opens, the hotel waiter Felix (played by Ben Houghton) is playing a grand piano and singing, a service for which extra tipping is undoubtedly required. The suite’s guests are Sir Hugo Latymer (Edmond Genest), an eminent author in his early 70s, and his somewhat dowdy, one might even say serviceable, wife Hilde (Alison Weller). Hugo is noticeably slowing. He’s had health problems, and Hilde has added nurse to her duties as secretary and chief organizer.

She’s preparing to go out; he wants her to stay. It isn’t because he wants her company, as his waspishness makes clear, but because an old mistress he hasn’t seen in decades is coming for dinner, and he doesn’t want to be alone with her. Carlotta Gray is an actress who had a middling career. Why is she coming? What does she want? Money?

When Carlotta (Laila Robins) enters, she’s glamour and energy itself—upswept hair, an acid yellow sheath, and sparkling stilettos. Perhaps with a wee bit of glee, Hilde leaves him to her. The two old flames’ point-counterpoint dialog is full of Coward’s characteristic wit and verve.

Hugo’s break-up with Carlotta so long ago appears still painful to her, as was the uncharitable characterization of her he wrote in his autobiography. Now Carlotta is writing her own memoir, and what she wants is much more significant than cash. Since the era in which the play was written the issues people want to keep secret may have evolved, but the capacity for guilt and shame remains with us and, along with the loss of love, has a powerful emotional impact.

Robins and Weller fully inhabit the two female characters and deliver Coward’s rather fussy and formal dialog (by 2016 standards) convincingly. At one point Hugo calls Carlotta “feline,” and indeed Robins moves around the stage much like a cat playing with her mouse. I’ve seen Robins on stage several times, and she’s always great, and I hope to see Weller again.

I scrambled my dates for posting this review, and tickets for this production are no longer available. Apologies, but it’s one to watch for if your own regional theaters produce it.