Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward, directed by Maria Mileaf.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Good night, you foolish bird!"
Noel Cowardís world war two comedy is, literally, a drawing room comedy. It is set in the drawing room of a country house in Kent and all of the action of the play takes place there. Itís a ghost story. Its four principal characters are a man and his two wives, one living, one dead, and the medium, or psychic, who opens the door between this plane and another which allows wife number one to return. The spirit of the play is blithe: carefree and lighthearted. It is also blithe: lacking, or showing a lack of, due concern. In the current production of this play at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Blithe Spirit is brittle, witty, haughty, occasionally lighthearted (they got that part in), and definitely lacking due concern.
Director Maria Mileaf and her team of designers have moved the play from the drawing room of the country house of Charles Condomine into the living room of his mighty mansion in which a team of servants rearrange the furniture, totally, at least twice a day. As designed by Neil Patel, the same space serves Charles and Ruth in a variety of ways and conformations. Itís a surprise to us, but not to them that their massive couch can face the fireplace at one moment and face the wall behind itself at other times. How amazingly aloof this couple must be, how indifferent to their surroundings. Itís a wonder they even notice a ghost at all, considering all of the other things they have to accustom themselves to every time they turn on the lights in this room.
Mileaf has also removed the play from the 1940s and dropped it into the 1960s. Ruth Condomine seems to be the sort of English woman who admired Twiggy, turning her into a role model. Her costumes, designed by Katherine Roth, include miniskirts that make her reside uncomfortably in her own chairs; her beanbag chair is only used when she is dressed for dinner in floor-length gowns.
Production aside, the cast assembled for this eveningís entertainment is a fascinating one. In this 1960s resort town in Great Britain racial inter-marriage seems to be the thing. Both of Mr. Condomineís wives are white, while he himself is bi-racial and their dinner guests are a black couple. Thatís all just fine. Thatís very 1960s, even if it doesnít quite jibe with the formality of address the two couples use. Even after the experience of Madame Arcatiís seance when Ruth confides her later troubles to Violet Bradman she calls her friend, Mrs. Bradman, certainly not a 60s thing to do. Oh, well, they stuck to the script and who can complain about that?
Ruth Condomine is the very talented Jessica Hecht. In this little band of players she is the trumpet. She blares out her emotions and performs a triple-tongued display of fireworks when needed. She wears the sixtyís styles well and she makes Ruth only marginally sympathetic in her tirades about her treatment at the hands of her unworthy husband. She is actually very funny, but not touching. In the final scenes of the second act, when her shrewish side is truly revealed, there is nothing new to discover about her; weíve already seen all this.
Elvira Condomine, dead wife number one, is seductive and silly and very corpulent for a ghost. She is played by Kate Jennings Grant. Grant is a bit one-note in her playing, but itís the right note for a flute. She is soft and windswept and her poltergeist-like excursions produce the right sort of reactions from the living folk around her. Never quite the transparent character, her motives play out on her face from the first moment she enters the room. As good as she is in this role, Grant gives us too much too soon and the predictable motives behind her visit from beyond are all too obvious.
Charles, their husband, is played by Bernard White. He is really rather good. Even when Mileaf doesnít give him the proper opportunity to converse with Elvira in a way that would definitely confuse Ruth, he manages that personal sense of confusion well. His final scene of triumph, one of three endings Iíve seen for this play, was gratifying. In spite of the double-barreled abuse hurled at him by his two wives, this man retains the tones of a cello and plays both melody and harmony aspects of the role of husband, provider and barely concealed genius with ease.
In her way, Wendy Malickís Madame Arcati, the medium, is really an entire string section pulled in tight, shimmering the same solid notes over and over. She wears outrageous costumes, dances outrageous dances, goes into traumatic trances and glares with a broad comedy style. Her voice is like music. Her hands are always in motion. Her hair is too perfect, an Ann Miller trait, so sixties. When she says lines like "Good night, you foolish bird." we know she means it, that she knows the bird, knows its thoughts and its ridiculous goals. Malick is funny, even when sheís serious, and the strains of strings of cat-gut being stroked by the tails of horses are inevitable.
The Bradmans are played by Michael Boatman and Adriane Lenox who seem just a hair out of place in this orchestra. They are the woodwind section and have little to do except add a harmonic aspect to the piece. Her accent is slightly Jamaican and his is unplaceable. She is, like a clarinet, lost in the confusion of the score and his oboe is untuned as yet. He wears clothing that makes little sense and adds little to the work, which is too bad, for when he gets it right, as he does in Act Two, heís very good indeed. Perhaps itís the forties stiffness and formality reconfined to the sixties concept that defeats her work. Itís hard to know.
Edith, the maid, is played by Jenn Harris. Half a piano and half a harp, she is the glue that hold the story together, and in this production, she is the visual and vocal riot of colors that makes the audience sit up and respond. She is brilliant, thatís all there is to it. Quirky, odd, all arms and legs, she got the laughs the play needs with every entrance, every line, every gesture, every exit. Like Edith Bunker in the late sixties television series, All In The Family, this Edith is the one to watch.
The company works hard, harder than they should need to, to make this play work. Malick, Hecht, Harris and Wright perform best in this company. Grant, Boatman and Lenox do what they can. The problem with the show is the way it has been set and the set boasts the best mirror in memory.
For pure wit and comedy this Noel Coward canít be beat. For quirky and odd, laugh-producing performances, Harris and Malick have it won, hands down. For visual delights, we have the beautiful Hecht and Grant. There really is something for everybody in Blithe Spirit, but thereís nothing very blithe (definition one) about it.
photo: Joan Marcus
Kate Jenning Grant as Elvira; photo: Joan Marcus
Bernard White as Charles Condomine with Jessica Hecht; photo: Joan Marcus
Blithe Spirit plays at the Williamstown Theatre Festival through July 29. For tickets and information contact the box office at 413-597-3400