“Blithe Spirit” first appeared on the London stage during the dark days of 1941. The Germans were constantly bombing London and Britain was losing battles on land. The wry satirist Noel Coward wrote this play in five days to lighten the spirits of his countrymen. The farce ran for almost 2,000 performances and was headed by the estimable Rex Harrison (“My Fair Lady”), an ideal interpreter of the juicy witticisms the author composed at a delirious clip. Already, the original presents some imposingly large shoes to fill.
Mr. Coward’s elegant wordplay is like a trove of jewels waiting to be quarried and put on display. When his wit is spoken by good British actors or Americans who can strike the right inflections, timing and supercilious attitude, only champagne has comparable sparkle. Anything otherwise can disrupt the tone, resulting in noticeably flat histrionics.
Thus, when reviving a Noel Coward play, one must either choose to embrace the stylized atmosphere or add his own blithe spin to it. Given that his players are college students, director Bill Largess has decided to do both in this, the GW Department of Theater and Dance’s first production of the season. Happily, by working from a broader scope, Largess and his cast hit almost every effulgent grace note.
The farcical fantasy tells the story of writer Charles Condomine, who was, most likely, based on Coward himself; every straitlaced tic is accounted for – think Frasier Crane. Condomine decides to invite a local medium to conduct a s?ance at his home, all in the name of research for his latest book. Together with his wife Ruth and a couple of friends, they manage to conjure up the spirit of Charles’s first wife, Elvira. She is seen only by Charles, but her presence is felt by all as she wreaks havoc on the household and refuses to pass through the pearly gates. In fact, she petitions for a license to haunt. Elvira wants her husband to join her on the “other side,” and she adamantly believes that he feels the same way, especially since he summoned her in the first place.
Dan Berman, as the stuffy Condomine, seems to be a tad timid during Act One, as he can’t quite decide whether to focus his efforts on his accent or his acting. But he shakes off his insecurities and enters the second act with a foppish charge, swooning about spinelessly, with wrists as limp as the fussy red cravat worn around his neck. Most of his domestic outbursts smartly balance the humorous with the touching.
As Ruth, Leigh-Erin Balmer knocks back her line readings like double scotches, but hers is a tricky talent. Her voice can sound a lot like film actress Laura Linney’s chirrupy bleat – it can either be sonorous or melodic. But she uses her voice and body well to bring her character to life. Acting with her entire body, Balmer crooks her leg and nervously flips a stray lock of hair, portraying her character’s gradual descent into frenzy.
But the night’s blithest spirit comes in the fiery form of Emily Beaton, new to the Dorothy Betts Theatre stage and the surprise coup of the production. Her natural knack for dry comedy is apparent immediately, but one would assume that hers is of the contemporary brand – aggressive sarcasm – which may not necessarily translate to Coward’s delicate, unforced drollery. Instead, Beaton adjusts her comic equilibrium, breezily tossing off her dialogue and working wonders as the straightman to the other cast members. Even sitting down, she’s in motion, knocking her knees anxiously, while her expressive face bears the look of constant worry or sadistic glee.
The rest of the cast members demonstrate the importance of working as a close-knit team, generously supporting each other. Kristen Guinan-Wiley, as Madame Arcati, suggests a lanky, young Angela Lansbury of “Gaslight” and “Sweeney Todd” fame. Boasting colossal energy, she makes a spunky medium, tripping around the stage almost drunkenly. Her lone waltz across the parlor room is an out-and-out hoot. Russ Feder, Darby O’Donnell and Simone Zvi supplement many of the evening’s chuckles. Hopefully the former two, as Dr. and Mrs. Bradman, can remedy the slight hiccups in elocution before too long, as it’s not always easy to make out what they’re trying to say. Both still manage to convey the pungency of a good Stilton in their characterizations, which is difficult enough, considering their parts are written primarily to bridge the gaps between the principal actors’ antics. Zvi, a touch too cutesy in her delivery, nevertheless understands the deceptively simple rhythms of a comedy of manners.
The real star of “Blithe Spirit,” however, remains Coward’s indelible prose. When the loopy Madame Arcati is offered spirits, she responds, “If it’s a dry martini, yes. If it’s a concoction, no. Experience has taught me to be very wary of concoctions.” This “Blithe Spirit” is a concoction of sorts, blending the old with the new like gin and vermouth. It’s a welcome cocktail.
“Blithe Spirit” will be performed on Thursday, October 9 – Saturday, October 11, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, October 12, at 2 p.m. at the Dorothy Betts Theater. Admission is 8$ for students and 10$ for general admission.