American Conservatory Theater Presents Blithe Spirit
Blithe Spirit first appeared on the London stage during the dark days of 1941. London was constantly being bombed by the Germans and Britain was losing their battles on land. Noel wrote this play in five days to lighten the spirits of the British. The farce ran for almost 2,000 performances from 1941 to 1946 and it was headed by Cecil Parker as Charles, Kay Compton as Ruth, Kay Hammond as Elvira and the indomitable Margaret Rutherford as Madam Arcati. Ms. Hammond and Ms. Rutherford repeated their roles in the 1945 J. Arthur Rank film, while Rex Harrison and Constance Cummings were tapped to fill the roles of Charles and his second wife.
The American stage premier took place at the Morosco Theatre in New York in November of 1941, with Clifton Webb playing Charles, Peggy Wood as the wife and Mildred Natwick as Madame Arcati. I was just a high school student traveling to New York when I first saw this production and I fell in love with the play. It was my first experience at seeing a droll comedy of manners. Since then, I have seen several revivals in London and Los Angeles and they have all been gems with great casts. I also enjoyed the musical version of the play, High Spirits, in both New York and London. Bea Lillie was splendid as the medium in New York, and Cicely Courtneidge was marvelous as the zany woman in the West End. Mr. Coward's word are jewels when they are spoken by good British actors or English influenced actors who have the right inflection, the right timing, the right superior attitude. The scenes must be of perfect grand comic proportions to be successful.
When producing a revival one must either choose to embrace the stylized atmosphere in the approach to the work or one must add his own spin. Director Charles Randolph-Wright has decided to do both in this current ACT production. This is the first multi-racial production of a Coward work in my memory but there is something lacking in this presentation.
Charles Randolph Wright, who is a brilliant director and who successfully directed Tartuffe and Insurrection at ACT, somehow misses the boat with this production. This is not saying it is a badly produced comedy but it lacks the Coward touch. It is thin in many spots and the dialog just does not have the master's flare. It has some good effulgent notes but most of the production is spiritless.
The fantasy tells the story of writer Charles Condomine, who probably was based on Noel himself. He decides to invite a local medium to conduct a seance at his home, all in the name of research for his new book. Together with his wife Ruth and a couple of friends, they manage to conjure up the spirit of Charles' first wife, Elvira. She is seen only by Charles and she wreaks havoc in the house after her appearance. The problem is how to get rid of the volatile first wife.
There should be some high jinks after Elvira appears, especially with the second wife Ruth, but it just is not there. The characters miss the patterns of Noel's words, and the banter between the characters just doesn't work.
Gregory Wallace, one of ACT's better actors, plays the husband almost as a parody of the past actors that I have seen as Charles. He goes completely overboard in his speeches, even with the long, drawn-out verbs and adverbs of the sophisticated British gentleman. Shona Tucker is miscast as his second wife Ruth. She is never shattered by the ghost Elvira and even though she is a very competent actress, she just can not get Coward's style. Rene Augesen as Elvira is the actress who gets nearest to the style of the British playwright. She is beautiful, alluring and she loves to drape herself all over the furniture in Charles' home. The maid, played by Jessica Turner, is a little much with her slapstick that does not go with this production.
There is one superior performance - Lori Larsen makes a wacky Madame Arcati. Her energy is colossal and she makes a fun medium who is full of spunk. She trips about the stage in a mannish manner, slapping the host and his guests on their backs and sings and dances around the room. Every time she comes on stage, the play becomes fun.
Director Wright wisely did not temper the words of Mr. Coward very much and the lines are still comical. Lines such as when Charles says to Ruth while she is reading The Times, "Anything interesting in 'The Times'", Ruth replies "Don't be silly," or when Madame Arcati is offered a cocktail, the medium replies "If it's a dry Martini, yes. If it's a concoction, no. Experience has taught me to be very wary of concoctions." The director has interjected Coward's music during the scene changes. The vocals on tape are of the cast members singing with Peter Maleitzke on piano. It is quite charming.
Costumes by Beaver Baurer are gorgeous and the set design by Kate Edmunds of the Condomine's home in Kent is beautifully done.
Blithe Spirit plays through March 24 with tickets from $19 to $61. Tickets are available through the Geary Box Office, 405 Geary Street at Mason, (415)749-2228 and on line at www.act-sfbay.org. The next production will be Tennessee Williams' Glass Menagerie that will run from March 29 through April 28.