No dearly departed in `Blithe Spirit'

This revival could use more infusion of spirit

Theater Review

April 19, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit is about a marriage in which the vow "Till death do us part" does not apply.

Written during the London Blitz, the play is Coward's light comedy about death. But though director Tim Vasen's production at Center Stage contains some sparkling moments, it's mostly a serviceable revival of a work that should be almost continuously effervescent.

Coward wrote roles for - or at least modeled after - himself in most of his plays. They're generally identifiable by the trademark smoking jackets and dressing gowns, which are, in this case, worn by David Adkins as Charles Condomine.

A successful novelist, Charles invites a medium to a dinner party at his country home as part of his research for his next book. He admits to his other guests, a country doctor (Patrick Husted) and his giggly wife (Becky London), that he hopes Madame Arcati will turn out to be a fraud since the character in the book is a charlatan.

But Madame Arcati, played by Randy Danson with eccentric but undeniable seriousness of purpose, is the real thing. Granted, she parades about the living room waving a crystal and makes noises like a wounded cat when she goes into a trance, but Danson plays her as a thoroughly confident woman who knows her trade and gets results.

By the end of Madame Arcati's seance, Charles has not just one wife, but two - his current wife, prim and proper Ruth (Lise Bruneau), and his late wife, Elvira (Lynnda Ferguson), a sexy, fun-loving woman who, quite literally, died laughing seven years ago. The two women are intended to be opposites, and Center Stage's casting accentuates the disparity. Bruneau's Ruth is a helpmate; Ferguson's Elvira is a playmate.

Adkins' dapper Charles clearly considers himself a ladies' man, but astral bigamy proves more than even he can handle - especially since only he is able to see Elvira (which leads to a number of amusing, inadvertent exchanges with Ruth). Charles isn't intended to be sympathetic; indeed, his perturbing situation is his comeuppance for selfishness and vanity. But Adkins has a low-keyed, almost lazy speaking style that takes the edge off his character's frustration.

In contrast, Ferguson's Elvira is a lively good-time girl, even in death. Done up in grayish white, from her makeup and bobbed wig to her filmy lounging pajamas, Ferguson is a playfully mischievous ghost. Some of director Vasen's most inspired touches come when this glamorous creature teases the increasingly hysterical second Mrs. Condomine - whether staring nose-to-nose at Bruneau's unseeing Ruth, or tossing olives down Ruth's blouse.

At other times, however, a dose of overstatement creeps in. For example, we don't need to see a lock of Bruneau's hair - and then two - out of place to know that Ruth, portrayed here as an unyielding control freak, is coming unglued.

There is one intentionally over-the-top character - the Condomines' new maid, Edith, who dashes about at warp speed. Edith turns out to be a pivotal figure in Coward's drama, and, between scenes, Vasen offers some lovely hints of Edith's impish inner life. Whether polishing off a guest's unfinished martini or breaking into a spotlighted little dance, Catherine Weidner gleefully reveals that this seemingly dim, overburdened servant is more than she appears to be.

Most of David Burdick's costumes serve the play well (at one point other-worldly Elvira wears dark glasses whose oval lenses suggest a Whitley Strieber alien), but it's not necessary to clothe Ruth in a skin-tight navy blue suit to underline how uptight she is.

Unqualified praise goes to set designer Michael Vaughn Sims, however. Not only does the rear wall of French doors offer several humorous glimpses of intrepid Madame Arcati bicycling by, but the entire elegant drawing room set becomes a character in its own right in the final, anarchic scene.

Blithe Spirit was Coward's most successful play, perhaps in part because the theme of communicating with the dead answered a need in wartime, and also perhaps because its middle-class characters were more recognizable than the playwright's usual ultra-sophisticates.

Today both of these factors can make the play seem sitcom-like, a trait Washington's Arena Stage emphasized to a fault a few years back. Center Stage's production largely avoids this pitfall, but even so, the result is merely diverting instead of incandescent.

Blithe Spirit

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. most Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays. Through May 19

Tickets: $10-$48

Call: 410-332-0033

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