"I shall ever be grateful for the almost psychic gift that enabled me to write Blithe Spirit in five days during one of the darkest years of the war," Sir Noël Coward recalled long after the fact. According to Coward's account, the script of the 1941 London hit "was not meticulously constructed in advance and only one day elapsed between its original conception and the moment I sat down to write it. It fell into my mind and on to the manuscript. Six weeks later it was produced and ran for four and a half years, and I am still wondering whether or not it was 'Important'. Only Time will tell."
Time has had its say in the 69 years since Blithe Spirit premiered. More than a quarter century after Coward's death, his finest plays are performed regularly while works by many of his prominent contemporaries, including Barrie, Pinero, Galsworthy, and Rattigan, have fallen by the wayside. Without doubt, Blithe Spirit is an "important" play, and Coward's name belongs among England's foremost theatrical humorists: Congreve, Wycherly, Sheridan, Goldsmith, Shaw and, yes, even Shakespeare.
Blithe Spirit is currently being revived by The Pearl Theatre, a 17-year-old, Off-Broadway resident company of actors committed to classical repertory. The Pearl seldom stages anything written after 1925. In choosing Blithe Spirit as its season opener, the ambitious troupe acknowledges that this delicious comedy, once relegated to the scrap heap of community theater and summer stock, belongs in the glorious lineage that runs from The Second Shepherds' Play to The Importance of Being Earnest and Pygmalion.
In his 50-year writing career, Coward created characters who are near relations of the fops and true wits portrayed in the English comedies of the Restoration and 18th century. His plays, including Hay Fever, Design for Living, and Present Laughter, depict the chaos of repressed emotions bubbling to the surface. In Coward's most famous comedy, Private Lives, for instance, a divorced couple, honeymooning with new spouses, find their passion (and resentments) rekindled to a white-hot level when they encounter each other by chance.
Blithe Spirit, subtitled "An Improbable Farce in Three Acts," concerns Charles Condomine and his second wife, Ruth, who invite a local eccentric, Madame Arcati, to conduct a séance in their home in southern England. Charles is gathering material for a novel about a homicidal medium and hopes to observe a lot of hooey. Instead, the Condomines end up as astonished hosts to Elvira, the ghost of Charles' first wife, who transforms their complacent marriage into a tense ménage à trois.
The far-fetched plot of Blithe Spirit, like the gossamer stories of most Coward plays, is merely a frame on which the dramatist hangs a series of deftly-phrased, psychologically complex scenes. Coward's dialogue, rendered in a highly personal idiom, crackles with polysyllabic, sometimes arcane vocabulary and whizzes along in intricate sentences that pile up to form baroquely constructed speeches. It's not prose that every actor can pull off; but the Pearl's cast, headed by longtime company member Joanne Camp and Doug Stender, formerly of the Royal Shakespeare Company, handles it (for the most part) with aplomb.
Camp is a formidable, intelligent presence as Ruth, though she's not adept at an English dialect. The very funny Stender seems to have modeled his Condomine (whom Ruth describes as having "a strong vein" of "waspish female psychology") on the weaseling antics of John Cleese, but he doesn't let the imitation go too far. Hope Chernov, at once earthy and ethereal, is convincingly mercurial as the peevish, mischievous Elvira. During the first press preview, the three principals gave tentative performances-- resulting, perhaps, from the brevity of their rehearsal period. But, thanks to good comic timing, they created a promising ensemble that is likely to improve--both in terms of technique and understanding of each scene's subtext--as the run proceeds.
For Madame Arcati, the spiritualist whose ham-handed meddling on the astral plane precipitates the play's crisis, director Stephen Hollis has wisely chosen an actress far removed from the famous original, Margaret Rutherford (who is almost inextricably associated with the role, which she repeated in the 1945 film). Slim, limber, and angular, Delphi Harrington is a living Hirschfeld line drawing. Where Rutherford was homely and comfortable as an overstuffed easy chair, the exotic-looking Harrington is a prickly, neurotic mess. Harrington's voice extends from a pastiche of basso profundo to a squeaky falsetto, swells from pianissimo to an unnerving forte, and frequently bounces off the back wall of the Pearl's tiny auditorium. Her interpretation of the character, though wacky and athletic, has just enough fragility and poignance to avert caricature.
Enjoyable as she is to watch, however, Harrington plays Madame Arcati too commandingly to blend with the rest of the cast. The funny conclusion of Blithe Spirit (which is distinctively Coward, and won't be divulged here) can be quite touching in performance. For that to happen, though, the play must belong to Charles and his wives. Director Hollis has allowed Harrington's Arcati to outweigh and overshadow the three leading players to the detriment of the production as a whole. Madame Arcati, though supposedly Coward's favorite among all the characters in his plays, shouldn't dominate. At the Pearl, she does; and the audience spends much of the performance anticipating her next arrival, rather than being appropriately absorbed by the emotional complications of the Condomines.
On the credit side, Hollis keeps the actors moving swiftly through the play's six long scenes without being hampered by the limitations of the small stage at Theatre 80 St. Mark's. He has cut Coward's rich text with skill and sensitivity, so that the show's running time--in many productions, three hours--is reduced to two and a half. Only those intimately familiar with the script will be aware of elisions.
Even the play's minor roles are well served, if not in all cases well cast. Elizabeth Ureneck, Dominic Cuskern, and Glynis Bell give creditable performances in parts that, as written, do no more than avail the plot. Playing husband and wife, however, Cuskern and Bell appear to belong to different generations--a fact that is bewildering when they first enter.
The laudable aspects of this Blithe Spirit are somewhat undermined by Harry Feiner's scenic design, which traps the upper-middle-class Condomines (supposedly living in 1941) in what appears to be a dark, mildewed cell, accentuated with recent volumes of Readers Digest Condensed Books and thrift-shop tchotchkes. While the designer's budget may have been severely restricted, there's no economic justification for the gratuitous ugliness and sociological misplacement of the physical production; a bare space with straight chairs would have been more adequate to the demands of Blithe Spirit than what is presented here. Leslie Yarmo's costumes, on the other hand, are resourceful and appropriate. The lighting and sound designs by Stephen Petrilli and Johnna Doty, respectively, are generally respectable but go awry when straining for a touch of the weird with effects that distract the audience rather than enhancing the action.
Though less than ideal, the Pearl's Blithe Spirit is somehow more piquant than the revival that brought Richard Chamberlain and Blythe Danner to Broadway in 1987. That woefully anodyne production featured Geraldine Page as Madame Arcati (her final role--she died during the run). For all the talent and insight that Page brought to eccentric characters in vehicles such as A Christmas Memory and The Trip to Bountiful, her Madame Arcati showed how inadequate Method-based American acting is for the textual complexity of Coward's work. New York is blessed to have classically trained artists, like those in the Pearl's Resident Acting Company, sophisticated and committed enough to tackle the theater's great texts. Persnickety theatergoers may hold out for an all-around better production but, if so, they'll miss an opportunity to glory in what is arguably Noël Coward's best play and--let's not mince words--one of the masterpieces of the 20th-century British stage.