I’m nearing my seat as my ears are met by the buttery notes of Bing Crosby’s “Love in Bloom.” I quickly nestle in, Merlot in hand, shortbread awaiting an eager tongue. With each bite I can taste the familiar richness in his voice. With each trumpet solo I’m sent to a place I haven’t visited in years.
I’m looking at a set that reminds me of every single livingroom I’ve ever seen from 1940s and 50s television: the drinking cart set with brandy, the Victorian furniture, the overstated chandelier. I’m reminded of the many times I found myself curled up in my fathers armchair to watch anything that happened to be on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) network. I’m just as comfortable here as I begin to witness for the first time, this old favorite, Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward.
We meet Charles and Ruth Condomine (Michael Mendleson and Jill Van Velzer), who seem to have a rather structured and conventional relationship. Charles is featured as our charming, comedic entertainer and Ruth, as his sophisticated, witty counterpart. The pair are hosting a seance in order to prepare Charles for the writing of his next book.
As they await their guests, a playful Charles taunts Ruth with memories from his first marriage. This exchange of words becomes interesting particularly because of its centering on jealousy. What’s most interesting is Ruth’s fight to denounce this uniquely human emotion in herself. Rather than acknowledge her insecurity and minor jealousy, she brushes it off stubbornly as most people do to avoid displaying weakness. I find it typical, and somewhat disappointing – yet I am still able to appreciate her humorous fits.
It’s fortunate that we have Vana O’Brien as a major comic relief to this semi-seriousness, she is brilliant in her role as the zany clairvoyant, Madame Arcati. She enters and easily sweeps the audience off their feet with her quick wit and eccentric commentary. With her help, the group performs the seance that accidentally conjures up deceased ex-wife, Elvira.
It’s easy to see that Elvira provides a light, mischievous and necessary antithesis to Ruth. The two actresses beautifully contrast one another in their scenes together and although they speak to one another via a third-party (Charles), each woman successfully fuels the others fire. The final straw appears symbolically as Elvira smashes a vase on the living room floor and the lights go out simultaneously.
During the intermission I notice the silly dedication of the supporting actors to their roles. It’s something I haven’t witnessed before–still being new to theater. They continue their acting which seems to subtly add to the comedy: the butler sets new glasses for drinking, the maid sweeps up the broken vase. It’s as if television in the 1940’s has suddenly paused to wait while it’s world of viewers takes a bathroom break.
In the second half I’m happier to see Ruth as a more level-headed character–although she is slightly less comical. She is now more concerned with the physical safety and well-being of the person she loves, rather than the possession of him. She warns Charles that Elvira is attempting to murder him, and they plan to exorcise her together with the help of Madame Arcati. Before this can happen though, a plot twist hurls Ruth into the afterlife where she is forced to coexist with her nemesis.
The remainder of the play leaves Charles and Madame Arcati to their own devices as they try to make sense of what has happened. Left without many other options, and clearly annoyed by the women, Charles presses on in attempt to exorcise them both from the house, failing miserably. This only antagonizes the ghosts who then collaboratively terrorize him by way of flickering lights, falling books and moving furniture. This was a magical finale that hustled Charles right out of the house for good, leaving the audience only with their own roaring laughter and applause.
Noel Coward dared to poke fun at the idea of life and the reality that is death in a period of time that needed it. He encouraged us to laugh at the absurdity of human emotions and gifted us with a comedic reflection that is still relevant and necessary today. Blithe Spirit is a must see, light-hearted comedy that we can all relate to.
Blithe Spirit will be showing through January 4th. For tickets and showtime information please visit www.artistsrep.org.