What makes a comedy a sure-fire hit?
Blithe Spirit by Noël Coward. Directed by Spiro Veloudos. Staged by the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, Boston, MA, through June 5.
Reviewed By Helen Epstein
That was one of the few questions I was taking the trouble to ask myself while giving in to the sheer enjoyment of Spiro Veloudos’s exuberantly entertaining, no-holds-barred production of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit. Although it has been called “an allegory of homosexualization” by at least one academic, and although it was allegedly written in seven days in an artistic and perhaps irrational act of defiance during the German bombardment of England in 1941, Blithe Spirit is one of the most mainstream and most-revived plays in the Anglo-American theater and one of the most consistently satisfying.
Like Mozart’s music, Coward’s dialogue is melodic and unfailingly attractive to the ear; the theatergoer does not wish to miss a single word. Like Chekhov’s plays, Coward’s characters are familiar figures— the Doctor, the Writer, the Writer’s Wife, the eternal and enigmatic figure of the Mystic/Medium—that offer the actor multiple possibilities of interpretation and interaction. Like much classical comedy, it pokes fun at timeless targets: the upper class, the lower class, marriage and its clueless spouses, the age-old seductions of the occult, as well as the twentieth century targets of psychology and parapsychology.
But perhaps knowing the historical context in which Blithe Spirit was written gives that suddenly rocking seance table, falling vase of flowers, and recurrent blowing-open French doors an underlying layer of gravity. I had the sense at times that this light and ostensibly most diverting of divertissements about ghosts and their return to haunt the living was written at a pitch of anger as Coward tried to fend off the prospect of real and massive death all around him.
The story, so clearly drawn that even my theater-language-challenged, French spouse could follow it, begins with Charles Condomine (what exactly did Coward have in mind with that name?), an author researching a book about the occult. To further his project, he and his wife Ruth invite Madame Arcati, a local medium, to dinner. Afterwards, Madame Arcati will conduct a seance with them and their skeptical guests, physician Dr. Bradman and his wife.
A whiff of psychoanalysis wafts through the air: the Condomines discuss the author’s deceased first wife Elvira before dinner with Charles tactfully refusing to compare the relative charms of his two wives and Ruth claiming disinterest.
But that conversation triggers an unconscious force that—during the subsequent seance—hints at Madame Arcati’s success in bringing the ghost of Elvira over “from the other side.” Elvira moves into the household, visible only to Charles but increasingly disruptive to Ruth.
The beautiful single set by Brynna Bloomfield—a warmly-lit living room that evokes New England more than England—is complemented by Charles Schoonmaker’s eye-catching costumes and the evocative use by sound designer Arshan Gailus of Irving Berlin and Noël Coward songs as performed by Leigh Barret and Jonathan Goldberg.
In counterpoint to the British accents, director Spiro Veloudos has opted for what struck me as a broad, energetic, very American style with two robust and full-voiced Mrs. Condomines; a Madame Arcati who looks and acts like a chaotic guru-groupie from the 1960s; and two suave and rational professional men of the mid-twentieth century.
Richard Snee is consistently satisfying as the attractive, somewhat smug author (a stand-in for Coward himself) who complains to his wife, “You won’t even allow me to have a hallucination if I want to!” Arthur Waldstein is convincing in the role of Dr. Bradman. Anne Gottlieb makes a fine Lyric Stage debut as the second Mrs. Condomine, bringing strength and humor as well as nuance to her role of famous author’s wife, delivering such lines as “I must beg of you to dematerialize my husband’s first wife as soon as possible,” with plausible gravity.
Veteran Boston actress Paula Plum has a ball as the first Mrs. Condomine (“I may be an illusion but I’m definitely here!” ) allowing her malice and mischievousness full rein. I found Kathy St. George’s Madame Arcati a bit over the top, but the rest of the audience seemed delighted by her antics.
We may not be in a blitzkrieg now, but between the unplugged BP oil spill, the daily slaughter in the Middle East, and the European debt crisis, we can all use a little diversion. The Lyric’s Blithe Spirit fits the bill.
The new edition of Helen Epstein’s Music Talks is available online and at music outlets like the shop at Symphony Hall in Boston. She is also the author of Joe Papp. Order these books through the link below to Amazon and The Arts Fuse receives a (small) percentage of the sale.