Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 2007
“The stately homes of England tho' rather in the lurch,
Provide a lot of chances for psychical research
There's a ghost of a crazy younger son,
Who murder'd in thirteen fifty one,
An extremely rowdy nun (who resented it),
And people who come to call
Meet her in the hall.
The baby in the guest wing who crouches by the grate,
Was wall'd up in the west wing in fourteen twenty eight.
If anyone spots the Queen of Scots in a hand embroider'd shroud,
We're proud of the stately homes of England.”
- Noel Coward, 1938
The stately Kentish home in which Charles and Ruth Condomine dwell is filled with everything mod. Even the version of Irving Berlin’s 1924 standard Always* used is a hip, swinging one. Set in the heyday of Marimekko and Carnaby Street and punctuated by music ranging from The Carpenters to The Zombies, the big op-art prints on the upholstery can barely compete with the enormous height and breadth of the living room in the set Neil Patel has designed for Maria Mileaf’s production of Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” on the Main Stage at the WTF. It is a spectacular set with many, many tricks up its sleeve, an ample playground for the idle rich and various spirits to cavort.
Oddly, while Mileaf, Patel, sound designer Fitz Patton, and costume designer Katherine Roth have done everything possible to set us down in 1970, Coward’s 1941 script has not been updated one wit, to the extent that they still play records on the “gramophone” and characters who are old friends address each other by their titles and last names. Does Coward’s estate not allow even such minor tampering with perfection? If so it might have been better to keep this play in its mid-century milieu. (Oddly, though written at the height of World War II, there are no references to any world politics in the play, so a 1950’s or 1930’s setting would be preferable to a 1940’s one.)
But the entire very attractive cast that Mileaf has assembled look just swell in bell-bottoms and mini-skirts, and the swinging sixties setting allows for a certain rambunctious and personal freedom that both liberates and negates Coward’s frosty British reserve. The fun of seeing the very structured lives of writer Charles Condomine (Bernard White) and his second wife Ruth (Jessica Hecht) disintegrate as the ghost of Charles’ first wife Elvira (Kate Jennings Grant) wrecks havoc is muted when their lives are free and easy to begin with. The only semblance of the old order lies in the pivotal character of Edith (Jenn Harris), the serving maid, and the rest of the unseen but often mentioned household staff, whose lives are similarly torn asunder after the psychic Madam Arcati (Wendie Malick) inadvertently summons up Elvira during a séance organized by Charles as harmless research for his exposé about psychics.
Along for the ride are the Condomine’s neighbors and friends Dr. Bradman (Michael Boatman) and his wife Violet (Adriane Lenox), who have little function but to observe.
Madam Arcati is considered one of the great female comedic roles, and is often played sort of like Miss Marple on acid – a tweedy, asexual British lady of a Certain Age who briskly bicycles about in brogues with her crystal ball in the basket. Here we have the Madam Arcati of the Age of Aquarius in the limber and angular Malick, coiffed in a stiff grey bob and clad in high-waisted purple velvet overalls with wide, wide bell-bottoms that would render cycling a nightmare (bicycle clips might have been both funny and appropriate). She lunges and poses about the stage, her wildly affected British accent as alarming as her stiffly extended arms, as she prepares mentally and physically for the psychic challenges ahead.
In contrast, Hecht’s Olive-Oyl-thin Ruth wears micro-mini skirts that render all movement stilted and constrained, while every layer of lace on Grant’s frilly white lambchop pants bounce along with her carefully constructed cleavage, the pile of corkscrew curls pinned to the top of her sixties-do, and the garters dangling from her bustier. Her Elvira is one naughty minx and while it is easy to excuse her wild antics as being the result of the freedom of having passed the giant hurdle from life to death, one suspects that she was just as free-spirited when her spirit was encased in its earthly form.
Hecht is at her best just before she departs the house (and this world, it turns out) when her Ruth is as fed-up as she can be with having to share her husband with the guiltlessly selfish Elvira. Suddenly her tightly coiled limbs break free and gesticulate wildly at odd moments, signally that this British bird’s sanity is about to fly the coop.
Another carefully controlled physical performance is rendered by Harris as the hapless and sad-eyed Edith. She gets a laugh just walking across the stage, but her persistent rendition of Always in the last scene just had me in stitches. There is nothing better than a good character actress doing what she does best!
In contrast to all these brilliant female performances (I am sure Lenox can be brilliant too, but here she is given little to do but look lovely) the men fare far worse. White is far from the typical tweedy David Niven or Rex Harrison type usually cast as leading men in Coward comedies. In his bellbottoms and sideburns he is too laid-back from the start so that Elvira has no brittle shell of conformity to crack open. But White is pleasant and works hard at making the comedy happen. His final scene, as the entire set explodes around him with supernatural energy, was very enjoyable.
Boatman seemed all at sea as the good doctor. There’s a waste of a handsome and talented actor. I hope the WTF can lure him back to town with a really meaty part some other season.
Sitting in that great big sparkly theater watching those attractive actors frolic on that amazing set (check out the mirror!) was lots of fun. Cheerful and thoroughly inconsequential theatre for a summer afternoon.
Blithe Spirit runs through July 29 on the Main Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The show runs two hours and forty minutes with one intermission. It is good clean fun but will be way too talky for young children. Ages 12 and up should enjoy it thoroughly. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-597-3400.
* George S. Kaufman suggested to Irving Berlin that he should have written something more realistic, like “I’ll be loving you, Thursday.”
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007