The Lyric Stage’s current production of Noël Coward’s urbane conflation of the upper-crust and the occult, Blithe Spirit, gives a jolly good shot at the urbane comedy Coward built his reputation (in and outside of the theater) on, and that most of us wish was still a little more prevalent in movies and television, but doesn’t quite bring it home with the perfectly timed wit and William Powell/Rex Harrison speech patterns one would like.
The first act was sluggish, with some slipping accents and decelerated delivery–unfortunate, because urbane comedy, whether it’s Coward or The Thin Man, very much relies on speed. Witticisms should shoot out at us so fast that we hardly have time to get them, rather than hesitate to give us a moment to decipher a British colloquialism or two and channel the humor. Coward’s rhetorical finger snaps have no offbeat. Anne Gottlieb’s Ruth gives us more than enough of the character’s nagging second-wifedry and affected civility and graciousness, but lacks a slight touch that crisp, jaunty, debonair demeanor (that was actually once very liberating for female characters of the stage and screen) that every Coward character needs to be allotted. After all, she’s not a total square. I actually found myself in, what I’d imagine to be Charles’ shoes, wishing she would go on an die already.
Thank God, or the spirit world, for Paula Plum (Elvira), who sweeps in in the second act, garbed in a diaphanous night gown and saves the show. Plum’s swift British English reeks of casual gentility as she (almost literally) floats around the room striking aloof poses. Things pick up all around and this cast of local all stars shines a little brighter. The dialogue and wit accelerate and, anyways, the play is generally a lot funnier once Elvira enters the picture.
Kathy St. George’s Madame Arcati doesn’t quite stand up. In the years since 1945 we’ve been bombarded with parodies of fortune tellers and psychic mediums. St. George of course offers up her own brand of spirited eccentricity and costume designer Charles Schoonmaker has given her an equally effervescent costume of polyester silk robes, cropped pants with elastic ankles, and sparkly purple flats. What were once eccentricities are now clichés and director Spiro Veloudos would’ve been better off to put a new spin on the character, rather than this dilated traditional one. On that note, jokes about drinking too much were pushed much too far. After all, aren’t we supposed to believe this crowd was basically drunk all the time, and clever enough to keep up their wit.
Highlights include some cockney singing by Anna Waldron (Edith), gorgeous nighttime lighting by Scott Clyve, an incredibly smart use of period musical interludes recorded by Leigh Barrett & Jonathan Goldberg, and (although the set is very much out-of-the-catalog) it saves all its tricks for the end show, where it hauntingly erupts with trick shelves, curtains, mantel, pictures, and doors.
As a lover of duration, I’m looking forward to their production of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby in October (more info on next season).
Blithe Spirit runs through June 6th @ the Lyric Stage Company (140 Clarendon). Tickets run $25 to $50.