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Blithe Spirit

Wendie Malick disappoints in Williamstown Theatre Festival's less-than-grand production of Noel Coward's otherworldly comedy. logo
Wendie Malick and Jessica Hecht in Blithe Spirit
(© Joan Marcus)
The ectoplasm is willing, but Blithe Spirit -- under Maria Mileaf's direction at the Williamstown Theatre Festival -- is weak. Maybe part of the disappointment is that expectations ran so high for actress Wendie Malick, best known for TV sitcoms such as Just Shoot Me, as the eccentric medium Madame Arcati, one of Noel Coward's juicier creations. But her seer is bright-eyed and purposeful, rather than an intrepid, if benighted traveler into the realm of "The Unseen."

That's the title of the book that novelist Charles Condomine (the urbane Bernard White) intends to write after conducting a bit of after-dinner research with the local psychic, whom he presumes to be a fraud. As audiences have discovered to their delight for 66 years now, Arcati might just have something up her sleeve after all. She somehow succeeds in summoning Charles's deceased first wife, Elvira (Kate Jennings Grant) -- which unsurprisingly drives Charles' current wife Ruth (Jessica Hecht) right up the drawing-room walls.

Elvira is spoiled, manipulative, and utterly delightful: Grant, got up in the late-hippie version of Regency Empire (upswept curls, a lace-festooned lounging suit), plays the dearly departed as a petulant, kittenish sexpot. No wonder Charles doesn't seem to mind her presence all that much.

Visually, the production charms from first glance. The design team -- including Neil Patel on set and Katherine Roth on costumes -- has transposed the play from the soigne 1940s to the eclectic, in-your-face gestalt of the 1970s, complete with hideous furniture (bold Marimekko-style prints, a beanbag chair and Lucite piano bench, a giant gooseneck floor lamp best suited for police interrogations). Period fashions mean bellbottoms, minidresses, and, for Charles, a black turtleneck dressed up with -- ugh --- a medallion.

Malick's costuming, however, is so peculiar as to constitute a distraction. For most of the play, Roth has her outfitted in a gunmetal-grey helmet of a Buster Brown wig and a pair of flowing, highwaisted purple overalls. She looks like the Cracker Jack sailor on speed, especially after she starts executing brisk jumping jacks and other calisthenics that are presumably part of her pre-trance warm-up. We expect something creative and original from Malick, but these windmilling semaphores seem grafted on.

Although her routine extracts laughs -- it reads well to the back seats -- it never appears to arise organically from the script. And when Madame Arcati reacts to the news of an otherworldly presence with bump-and-grind gyrations that are overtly sexual ("You little darling!" she says, thrusting), it's just plain weird.

Hecht really carries the play, and if there's any fault to be found in her performance, it's that she makes Ruth too appealing. She comes off as a paragon of wifely efficiency, and so we sympathize with her. What we really need is to see some hint of the martinet-like qualities that apparently -- as we learn late in Act 2 -- have Charles chafing.

The most exotic aspect of the play -- at least in this production -- lies in the cleverly worded volleys of domestic discord. When Charles and Elvira start to squabble -- or Charles and Ruth, or, better yet, Elvira and Ruth -- the atmosphere sizzles with the presence of genius. It takes a Coward to turn the stuff of everyday aggravation into an exercise in grand, epigrammatic style. Unfortunately, the production is far from a grand success.

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