Blithe Spirit director Claire Hart-Palumbo must've had her hands full just a week before the play opened, when she had to recast its lead character. Fortunately, she was able to call on Main Street Theater stalwart Joel Sandel to take the role of Charles Condomine, a prissy middle-aged writer of best-selling genre novels who is torn between his two wives, one living, one dead but alive in spirit.
In the hands of Ingmar Bergman, this could be heavy stuff. But it's a Noël Coward play, of course, so we're in for a romp. As Madame Arcati, the spiritualist who summons the ghost of the first Mrs. Condomine, Michelle Britton leads the romping, but the entire cast is strong, including Sandel, who managed to be very convincingly British and twittish even while occasionally having to read from the book on opening night.
The play opens with Charles and his second wife Ruth (Lisa Thomas Morrison) preparing a small dinner party that is, in reality, a pretext for conning a local spiritualist. Charles plans to write a mystery about a murderous medium, so he wants to observe local ghost-talker Madame Arcati at work. But Madame has her dignity and would never consent to being a subject for his research. So the Condomines have invited her and a couple of other friends to dinner, after which Madame Arcati will attempt to speak to the dead while the oh-so-worldly Condomines attempt to keep a straight face, as will their guests, a local doctor (Jim Salners) and his wife (Zona Jane Meyer). They're attended by Edith (Jennifer Gilbert), a servant with a slapstick manner.
But Charles gets much more than he's bargained for. His first wife Elvira (Kara Greenberg) appears, summoned, she says, by his subconscious longing for her.
By the end of act one, I was a little worried that Blithe Spirit's time had come and gone, even in terms of light summer fare. Meghan C. Hakes's set accurately evokes genteel English domesticity, and the cast seems convincingly British upper-middle-class, very concerned about the dryness of their martinis. But the first act relies heavily on plot, and as Coward gets us from before-dinner drinks to post-séance uproar, you feel the gears grinding.
Not that the first act is devoid of laughs. Sandel's sputtering at the reappearance of long-dead wife Elvira is funny, as is the fact that only he can see and hear her. So when he replies to Elvira's cooing and constant dance-like motion with amazed and exasperated shouts, his living wife Ruth thinks he's yelling at her and takes veddy British offense at his improprieties. Yes, this trick is funny, but very familiar, and I feared it would wear thin long before the play ended.
The situation is pretty static; all of the characters appear locked into their responses: Charles, shocked at Elvira's reappearance, and defensive about the delight he takes therein; Ruth, indignant at her husband's apparent preference for his dead wife; and Elvira, mischievously stirring the pot. But there's little depth to any of the characters — we learn surprisingly little about the first marriage until much later — so how does Coward fill the lengthy second act of this play?
In this production, as in many others, Madame Arcati comes to the rescue. In 2009 Angela Lansbury won a Tony for the same role. I don't know how she approached it, but I wonder if she matched Britton's level of physical comedy.
Britton is a big woman, but light on her feet, and she puts her girth to good use as Madame Arcati goes in and out of trances, trying to help the living Condomines by making Elvira go back where she came from. Arcati feels a purely professional responsibility to undo any harm she caused. She is by nature a dignified woman, with a comically excessive British manner of speech. It's when Britton punctures this dignity during Arcati's blackouts that the production reaches its comic heights. Later, as Arcati's efforts wear her down, dignity falls to the side, and she can't quite keep her tiny hat on top of her head.
Written during a five-day break Coward took from besieged London during WWII, Blithe Spirit spoke more profoundly to its original audiences than it does to us. People came for a comic break from the war, but many of those same people wished they could call back their own dead, and spiritualists did a brisk business.
None of that really resonates today, but in the right hands the play is still pretty funny.
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in Houston.