Blithe Spirit, by Noël Coward. Directed by Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Brenny Rabine, Gary Lindemann, Yvonne Perry; photo: Kate Penn
"Quien sabe? as the Spanish say."
Eileen Schuyler; photo: Kate Penn
Noël Coward, to lighten the hearts of his people in London during the darkest days of World War II, wrote the comedy "Blithe Spirit" - a play that celebrates death. He created a country gentleman who writes murder mystery novels, the man's controlling wife, his dead flirtatious first wife, a medium and other folks to amuse, a talent this author had and celebrated often. I first saw the play on television in 1956 with Coward, Lauren Bacall, Claudette Colbert and Mildred Natwick in the leading roles. I have loved it ever since. It is the finest comedy about living with the presence of the dead ever written, but it is a difficult play to do well. It has farcical elements, but it isn't a farce. It is a character-driven play whose characters can never be caricatures. The impossible situation (let's say) needs the subtlety of a contemporary drama to be the funny work it is intended to be. It cannot be used to make fun of its characters or of the people upon whom this situation is presumably based.
In Capital Rep's current production some of the best intentions regarding comic style have been overlooked and even circumvented by a talented crew who seem to find the "arch" British concept, a stylized conceit that self-mocks the Brits, to be the way to go in this production. What this has done is simple: not funny, not funny at all. However, it does point up some ideas that have not been explored much in the past. For instance, Lorenz Hart (of Rodgers and Hart) wrote in one ofhis last shows the lyric that sings "You always love the same girl in every girl you love," and we see this clearly in Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill's production. Charles Condomine has loved and married two women, Elvira who died early in their marriage and Ruth, his current wife. From the chatter about Elvira it would seem that the two women have little in common. But as played here by Yvonne Perry and Brenny Rabine, the two become flip sides of the same, thin coin. Both control their husband with iron fists; both are jealous, havoc-creating females who wind up visually becoming the exact same person, even physically melting into one another.
Charles is a weak man in this production who, in Coward's only failure in the writing, ultimately confesses to being as weak and wilfull a man as Elvira was a woman, thereby losing sympathy at the end and leaving the only hero of the play a toss-up between the medium and the maid.
The maid, Edith, emerges as the unsung star of this production. As played by Kelsey Torstveit, Edith becomes the one truly sympathetic character and one who is both genuinely funny to watch and so very human and vulnerable within the plot. Torstveit is brilliant and her Edith will be long remembered for everything she brought to the role, but most especially for the quality of her humility and its hidden strength.
Brenny Rabine loses the sympathy of the audience by trading in Ruth's over-sensitivity for a sense of betrayal-harboring-revenge. While the two may be closely allied, to push the latter sensibility is a negative that works against our hoping for a good outcome for Ruth. She has also chosen a vocal quality that is most annoying to listen to for two hours.
Yvonne Perry flits magnificently and gives a performance that threatens to enighten the audience about self-centeredness, a quality that no one can deny is paramount for Elvira. But without the love and the love-greed that Elvira feels being equally portrayed the character fails to attract. Perry mirrors, to a great extent, that vocal quality that destroys Ruth.
Elisabeth Henry and John Romeo play the Bradmans, friends of Charles who participate in the first scene seance and show up later to fill the needs of the Condomine trio. Both are excellent in their roles bringing some much needed reality to the house of cards that is Condomine Hall.
Gary Lindemann, a fine actor, gets lost in his quasi-upper-class accent and attitude and delivers a weak Charles whose departure into crass confession removes any hope for the man. It's a pity because the role has been a definer for many actors including Coward himself, Clifton Webb and Rex Harrison.
Eileen Schuyler does lovely work as Madame Arcati, the blundering mystic whose seance gets the ghostly ball rolling. Not as quirky as Margaret Rutherford, nor as manic as Wendy Mallick, never as emotional as Mildred Natwick who gave Arcati a thrilled existence or as self-devotional as Beatrice Lillie, Schuyler plays the self-determination of the woman, the professionalism of the non-professional. She gives the play its center and her arms seem to reach for the walls of reality that Coward built into his play.
Brian Prather's fascinating set works nicely for the piece, providing ample space and presenting a cramped British hallways, just like the ones I've walked through in the small towns north of London. Travis McHale's lighting is properly mood-oriented. Howard Tvsi Kaplan's costumes delineate the period nicely, although Elvira's gown felt a bit too pattern heavy for me. Rider Q. Stanton's sound design enhanced the plays magic qualities expertly and Michael Dunn's wigs worked wonders for the women.
I do believe that any exposure to the language of Noël Coward or the music of Irving Berlin is worthwhile. I wish that the director had trusted the material more and not tried to give it more than it needed to make it play. With this type of comedy all you really need is the chance to give the characters their due and let them do what the moments need. This version is overboard without a life-raft to swim toward and it teeters incessantly instead of reaching the author's destination. There is much that is good about it, but it just misses the pier.
Blithe Spirit plays through May 6 at The Rep, 111 N. Pearl Street, Albany, NY. For information and tickets go on line at capitalrep.org or call 518-445-7469.