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Cast keeps jolly old comedy sharp

Sun., April 10, 2005

What a refreshing change to hear the word “supercilious” tossed about on stage.

This is a Noel Coward word, a word of a different, more refined era. This thoroughly enjoyable production of Coward’s best comedy, “Blithe Spirit,” transports the audience to a world where men wear smoking jackets, women have servant problems and the repartee is brilliant and just oh-so-slightly cynical.

This world is, granted, hopelessly dated. Yet I found it to be great fun to wallow in for nearly three hours (it flies quickly with two intermissions). For one thing, it seems ever-so-much-more civilized than today’s world. For another, it’s funny in a relentlessly intelligent way.

Director Michael Weaver gives this Actor’s Repertory Theatre production a slightly broad comic touch. He and his well-cast ensemble have a keen eye and ear for the plummy eccentricities of the 1940s British upper classes, in which a stiff-lipped reserve contrasts with a pompous goofiness.

Tim Kniffin as Charles Condomine, Page Byers as his second wife, Ruth, and the rest of the ensemble perfectly capture that social scene, with their clipped British accents, their slightly raised eyebrows and their relish for delivering Coward’s high-quality insults. The word “hag-ridden” is bandied about.

This is one production in which the costuming, expertly designed by Lisa Caryl and Rebecca Cook, adds immeasurably to the mood. Charles glides through the set wearing, in order, a tuxedo, a blue dressing gown, a red silk smoking jacket and a double-breasted suit. His first wife shimmers through the living room in a silver silk robe, which billows ethereally in her wake. This is especially fitting when you consider she’s a ghost.

The set by Kate Olsen and Sam Schroeder is a detailed evocation of an upper-class British living room, all grand pianos and bookshelves and liquor carts. We feel like we’re in a Noel Coward world as soon as we walk in the theater.

Coward’s seemingly effortless plot has stood the test of more than 60 years. Charles and Ruth hold a séance as a joke. Yet the seer, Madame Arcati, somehow conjures the ghost of Elvira, his first wife. Three comic complications are all it takes to sustain this plot for three acts: Only Charles can see Elvira. She has a mean streak. And she won’t go away.

Kniffin is fun to watch from start to finish. He has a nearly Niven-like air of debonair self-possession, with terrific comic timing. He is also exceptionally expressive when reacting to another character’s lines. Byers was easily his match as Ruth. She is especially effective when smoldering in a thin-lipped rage. The Charles-Ruth confrontation to open the second act is the sharpest scene in the play.

Yet the funniest scenes in the play belong to Karen Nelson as the masterfully dotty Madame Arcati. She swishes around with gypsy scarves, cocking her head skyward to pick up emanations, and falls head over teakettle into trances. Nelson gives the originator of the role, Margaret Rutherford, a run for her money.

If you are so inclined, you can take it all as a psychological metaphor: the memory of the first marriage playing havoc with the second. Or you can just take it as three acts of good fun.


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