Artists Rep’s ‘Blithe Spirit’ Haunts the Holidays with Humor

The Noël Coward classic about a remarried man who accidentally summons the ghost of his manipulative first wife offers a comedic alternative to Scrooges and elves. Thru Jan 4

By Nathan Tucker December 2, 2014

The always delightful Vana O’Brien is inscrutable and ridiculous as the clairvoyant Madame Arcati.

Image: Owen Carey

Legend holds that celebrated playwright and actor Noël Coward wrote Blithe Spirit in less than a week during 1941, just after the Blitz destroyed his London office. It’s probably not surprising that this otherworldly comedy flowed out of him, nor that wartime audiences gobbled it up. The plot is certainly promising: novelist and socialite Charles Condomine, wishing to learn about the occult for a book he’s writing, invites a clairvoyant to perform a séance, only to have his skepticism backfire when the ghost of his manipulative and childish first wife returns to earth to annoy him. During a war, I’d sure want my problems to be as simple as just a bit of spectral torment from a deceased spouse.

Since it’s 1941 debut in London’s West End, Blithe Spirit has seen countless stagings and adaptations for film, television, musical theater, and Broadway. Coward’s ebullient and ceaselessly witty dialogue is solid comedy; if my friends insulted me as cleverly as this, I’d probably let them see more of my flaws. 

By now though, it is, more than anything else, a known entity: whether or not you’ve seen it before doesn’t much change the fact that you essentially know what you’re going to get from a mid-century comedy of manners about the ghost of a man’s first wife coming to wreck havoc on his ostensibly happy second marriage. Ultimately, comfort and predictability are what most people crave during the holidays, and so while this production might be an alternative to the typical elf-ridden holiday fare, it’s by no means a clean escape from kitsch or convention. There’s a passive-aggressively antagonistic married couple served by a bumbling, clumsy maid, and the droll entertainment conventions of upper class English socialites abound (can I really be the only one who doesn’t find “dressing for dinner” all that charming anymore?).

Blithe Spirit
Artists Repertory Theatre
Thru Jan 4

What’s more, while I’m sure the play’s strong female leads and its frank depiction of marital strife might have felt boundary pushing to viewers in the ‘40s, many viewers these days will be unable to ignore the stench of old fashioned gender norms. Charles’s unfaithful and nagging late wife Elvira returns from the dead to haunt him—a man’s torment at the hands of women never ceases. Sure, Charles is not exactly the greatest ambassador for his gender: he’s self-centered and pompous, with an angry streak and a tendency to crack wise in situations where it’s not appropriate. But if anything, these attributes make a competition between these two women, one spectral and one living, for this dead weight’s affections seem all the more absurd.

Charles (Michael Mendelson) with both his living wife, Ruth (Jill Van Velzer), and the ghost of his first wife, Elvira (Sara Hennessey)

Image: Owen Carey

Strong performances go a long way towards suspending disbelief, though, and fortunately this play is full of them. Jill Van Velzer is so tightly wound as Charles’s second wife, Ruth, that you can practically see the veins in her neck pulsing from the back row. Sara Hennessey’s Elvira slinks around the stage with the calculated breeziness of someone who knows she has her (ex-) spouse under her thumb, and Vana O’Brien is inscrutable and ridiculous as the clairvoyant Madame Arcati. Michael Mendelson’s Charles bounces between them all as confused and helpless as he wishes he were in control.

All things told, it’s great family entertainment for a season when that’s exactly what you want—assuming everyone in your family can sit through all 2 hours and 45 minutes of it—as evidenced by the fact that the run extended twice before the show even opened. Gorgeous and detailed set and costume design keep the eye engaged, and while you might see the significant plot twist coming, the visual payoff is no less funny and satisfying. There’s not really a character to root for here, but it’s a comedy after all, and if a bunch of people in one house making fools of themselves and getting in petty arguments doesn’t conjure the holiday spirit, what will?

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