The set-up: I don't think I'm too far off target for this prediction: the light, frothy, entertaining works of Sir Noël Coward will continue to be performed many centuries into the future. (Anyway, who'll still be around to prove me wrong?)
The Art Deco equivalent to Restoration author Congreve, or the comedy-of-manners Sheridan, or even the great Moliere, Coward's comedies are bubbly, well-polished, and usually hinge around the ebb and flow of sexual politics inside commitment, whether that be a married couple or those in the throes of an amorous liaison. Darker issues boil gently under the surface, talked about obliquely, but are linchpins around which his cosmopolitan characters revolve. Wit and irony are turned into epicene banter, while the wicked barbs define character but never wound too deeply. His upper-crust people, his favorite subject, are mirrors into the everyday. A member of cafe society can behave just as abominably as a gutter snipe, they just do it with more taste, with martini in hand and maybe wearing a silk dressing gown. Coward's comedies are bracing, brittle, and a bit shocking. Written to entertain and amuse, the bitchy observations that seem so wispy at first, strike you hard later.
The execution: Noël Coward's clever Blithe Spirit (1941) is all wisp, seeing as one of the four principal characters is a ghost, and another will soon become one. Mystery writer Charles (Steven Fenley) needs research for his next book and asks local psychic Madame Arcati (Marcy Bannor) to perform a séance. Neither he nor current wife Ruth (Lisa Thomas-Morrison) believe in such mumbo-jumbo, but they humor the odd old lady, until she goes into her trance and conjures Charles's first wife Elvira (Lauren Dolk). Of course, only Charles can see her. Need I add that comic complications ensue, as henpecked Charles is now besieged by two competing harpies: Ruth thinks he's delusional, while Elvira attempts to seduce him back into her ectoplasmic arms.
Texas Rep's production is a delight from the first glance of the Alley-esque, detailed and cozy Kent country home designed by Trey Otis to the delightfully appropriate musical numbers from English dance band master Ray Noble, played during the scene changes. The ensemble does a spirited turn at keeping Coward bouncy and full of wicked glee.
During one of their frequent arguments, Elvira describes Charles as having "seedy gravitas" and looking like a "wounded puppy." As deliciously portrayed by the exceptional Mr. Fenley, this is Charles to a T, a Saint Bernard in tuxedo. Exasperated at being told he's drunk by no-nonsense Ruth, Fenley blusters magnificently, yet turns all soft and mushy when seduced by Elvira.
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Looking like a specter of Carole Lombard at her prime, Dolk, a siren on a mission, absolutely beguiles as she swirls through the house creating mayhem. Driven to distraction by Charles's constant protestations of sanity, Thomas-Morrison is a revelation as cold, rational Ruth. When Charles suggests that maybe Elvira should stay around - considering Arcati doesn't really know how to exorcize her - Ruth explodes in perfectly contained ire, played by Thomas-Morrison with wonderful nuance. She's so convincing as this privileged lady of the manor, I think I saw steam pour out of her ears.
As Arcati, Bannor, who at least looks comically odd in Macy Lynn's idiosyncratic costume, doesn't thoroughly mine all the quirky humor to be found in one of Coward's most inspired creations. Practical and thoroughly serious in her spiritual work, Arcati's full of go-getter grit and stiff-upper-lip determination. She's a small-town bohemian and also a bit mad and will not be deterred. Bannor holds back, putting gruff out front, instead of comic unconventionality. Without a truly antic Arcati, Spirit loses a bit of its oomph, but the other actors more than make up for the lack. Rounding out the cast are Haley R. Cooper as eager maid Edith with a surprise of her own; and Amy Buchanan and Ted Doolittle as yet another battle-scarred married couple.
The verdict: Coward's delightfully fizzy comedy, nimbly directed by Scott Carr, may not make you believe in spirits, but you'll wonder afterward what you'd do if an ex-lover came back into your life. That's a haunting thought.
Written while London was suffering through the Blitz, Sir Noel's extremely pleasant diversion romps with an abundance of spirit through November 10 at Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline Rd. Purchase tickets online at texreptheatre.org or call 281-583-7573. $35.