"This Marital Comedy Will Definitely Raise Your Spirits!"
You know that feeling you get when your perfect dessert is placed right before you? Perfectly made. The crust, crisp and delicious, but with a zest of originality; the filling precisely right, tangy or sweet, or both, in exactly the right proportions and seductively compelling; the topping – perfectly formed, a stark contrast to the filling, but effortlessly complementary. And then, just when you think it can’t be better, the server produces a dollop of gourmet vanilla bean ice-cream right on top and it seems as though nothing will ever be this good again. A remarkable feeling.
On very rare occasions, theatrical experiences can produce a very similar sensation. And so it was the night I visited Kentwood Players’ fabulous show in Westchester, where Noél Coward’s utterly perfect, improbable farce, "Blithe Spirit," is playing through August 24th. It is sublime, divine and genuinely amusing, in equal proportions. A glorious confection, every mouthful of which deserves savoring.
Noel Coward’s frivolous comedy about, well…death, was first performed in 1941 when England was being blitzed nightly, and when the threat of a sudden violent death was a real and present danger. Coward wanted to give his fellow Londoners something light and fun, and so, in a burst of creativity he spent a week dashing off a marital comedy, teaching us that a return to former stamping grounds can sometimes be a bad idea. It certainly produces much trouble for mystery novelist Charles Condomine and his present wife, Ruth, when first love Elvira pops back from beyond the grave seven years later to cause mischief in his second marriage.
Not surprising then,“Blithe Spirit” is very English in every aspect. It skewers class, society, fashion, style, trends, and pretty much every ingredient of marriage in the lofty middle classes or lower upper classes of England. It’s funny and silly, and even a little ridiculous, but awash with elegance and sophistication, using conversational uppity dialogue that sails over many heads. Totally English.
The story concerns main character Charles, who, for purely amusing research purposes for his next novel, invites a daffy, bicycle-riding medium named Madam Arcati to hold a séance in his house. She promptly turns her host into an astral bigamist by conjuring up his beautiful, long-dead wife, who has now taken up residence in his home. Needless to say, Ruth has plenty to add to the matter. Charles, now desperate, once again calls upon Madam Arcati to help rectify his mistake in judgment.
The play reveals Coward’s own viewpoint of women and the state of matrimony. Charles is obviously dominated by the women in his life - his first wife is a sexual prowess, who uses her wiles to manipulate him mercilessly, while Ruth is cold and rather stern. For Charles, marriage is a trap he increasingly wishes to break free from, so that, like a devil-may-care spirit himself, he can travel the world unrestricted.
While Coward's frothy farce was greeted with raised eyebrows by critics who thought a play making light of death was poorly timed, given the war effort, audiences disagreed, and this wartime prompted ghost story proved just the right thing to perfectly escape from a grim reality. “Blithe Spirit” broke box office records and met with great success on Broadway, hitting the top tier of Coward 's most often revived plays.
The show is well bolstered by having Gail Bernardi at the helm, as well as seasoned actor and Coward interpreter, Michael Hovance, cast as the urbane but woman-dominated Charles Condomine. Mr. Hovance is as charming, selfish and sophisticated a Charles as you could hope for, fully tapping into the Cowardesque humor. Suave, debonair and totally fastidious, the superb Mr. Hovance is comically brilliant – every single line mined, illuminated and spectacularly delivered with eloquence and style, dry as one of his own martinis, and wickedly animated as he finally makes his escape, pockets stuffed with brandy and cigarettes. His rhythms with both wives (and even Madam Arcati) are truly delightful in every respect.
The excellent Megan Blakeley is the pragmatic Ruth, the sexy, feet-on-the-ground, increasingly petulant and somewhat bossy successor to Elvira, who apparently shares more qualities with Charles' mother than his first wife ever did. She is smart, assured and bristling with intelligence, the perfect foil for her suave husband. There is so much splendor in everything she does, from her casual movement of Elvira’s photograph on the piano, to her increasing outrage at Charles’ apparent rudeness when he first encounters Elvira’s ghost. Ms. Blakeley is gorgeous, utterly gorgeous as Ruth, a wonderful actor loaded with a unique sense of wit and charm.
Jessica Plotin plays the other worldly Elvira, the lovely, supercilious, oh-so-blithe spirit who emerges through the French doors during a séance. When these two characters finally meet, the comic sparks fly as their exchanges become more rancorous.
The shadowy Elvira can be a tricky role. But Ms. Plotin makes the part pulse with life and has to easily be the most stunning Elvira to date. The blonde bob is perfect, giving her a clear Thoroughly Modern Millie feel which suits the character perfectly. Part ethereal, part earthy, all woman, all seductress, all trouble, Ms. Plotin romps around the stage flinging her arms and chiffon folds in ways that would make Emma Stone in “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” blush. She is perfectly beguiling and antagonizing to Charles, first viciously sparring with Ruth in disparaging ways, only to finally BFF with her in the end.
ELVIRA: “Let her go - she'll calm down later on.”
CHARLES: “It's unlike her to behave like this - she's generally so equable.”
ELVIRA: “No, she isn't, not really, her mouth gives her away - it's a hard mouth, Charles.”
CHARLES: “Her mouth's got nothing to do with it - I resent you discussing Ruth as though she were a horse.”
The bizarre love triangle that transpires, with Ms. Plotin’s minxy Elvira manipulating Charles against Ms. Blakeley’s Ruth, results in both women finally appearing intolerable to him. Together, this triangle provides the weight of the play, the ideal serving of Coward flummery, while the audience shifts back and forth in support of one or the other.
Madam Arcati, a dotty fruitcake with a penchant for ectoplasm, conducts the aforementioned soul-searching at a dinner party in Condomine's posh living room through special invitation. Joanna Churgin invests the zany spiritualist’s gambit with such a fizzy eccentricity that it makes this one of this season’s not to be missed performances. The fact that she's obviously having great fun in her role is contagious and watching her dance around during the seance defies any question of her fitness to cycle the 8-mile distance between the Condomine home and her own.
Her performance as the medium conduit to Elvira’s return is an absolute joy, beautifully pitched on the border between being crisp and precise and drolly unpredictable. Dressed in a turban and colorful silk cardigan, she frolics around the room in giddy abandonment as she proclaims again and again “Away with melancholy.” Like a mad hatter she unknowingly helps orchestrate proceedings at this mad dinner party.
Going into her trance to entice the spirit world she performs an odd, birdlike Gangnam-style routine that really ought to go viral. Then, informed by Charles that Elvira’s ghost is in the room, she prowls about, nose twitching, like a sniffer dog presented with suspicious luggage. But while all this is very funny, she is entirely serious in her calling. She treats doubters to a baleful stare that could freeze flames and both she and Director Bernardi’s production make clear that, though batty, Madame Arcati is the most sincere character on the stage.
And in a runaway star turn, the role of Edith is played by Kelsey Weinstein, the eager to please but terminally inept maid. Edith may not please her mistress, but she more than pleases the audience. She is a comic gem whether moving at a self-conscious snail's pace, or uncontrollably racing in or out of the room. Other supporting characters include Doctor and Mrs. Bradman, portrayed by George Kondreck and Michele Selin. Both actors assume their roles with much dignity as friends of the family and socialites in the upper crust.
Aided and abetted in everything they do are a fantastic crew of wonder-workers, featuring George Kondreck with a delightful period set living room (love the spooky, billowing curtains), which serves for all scenes. Somehow that clock has to change though. It’s permanently fixed to 7:55. Beautifully designed costumes, tuxes and gowns are courtesy of Costume Designers, Diana Mann and Maria Cohen; perfect Lighting from Michael Thorpe, remembering that morning breakfast scene that emulates sunlight breaking in from the garden. Mr. Thorpe also designs the bracing Special Effects, most prominent at the end of the show. Sound Designer is Susan Stangl, and the show’s Producer is Susan Goldman Weisbarth.
But that is not all. Once again, this cast is mouth-watering perfection. Mr. Hovance, the crust, Ms. Blakeley the filling, Ms. Plotin the topping, and Ms. Churgin, indubitably, the vanilla bean ice-cream.
Blithe Spirit continues until the evening performance on August 24th. For ticket information, please go to: http://www.kentwoodplayers.org/ This show is Very Highly Recommended!
The Show Report
* Publicity Photos: Shari Barrett