Funny But Not Quite Nailing It: BLITHE SPIRIT at Everyman

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Funny But Not Quite Nailing It: BLITHE SPIRIT at Everyman

Beth Hylton as Elivra

Beth Hylton as Elivra

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com May 31, 2015

Blithe Spirit, now being revived at the Everyman Theatre, purports to be a light confection, a sort of situation comedy where the situation is the intrusion of the ghost of a writer’s dead first wife into his second marriage. But there is a sourness at its core, a vision of marriage amongst the British upper crust which, stripped of the farce in which playwright Noel Coward has swaddled it, is bleak. The “happy” denouement is the writer’s freeing himself of both wives, one of whom has cheated on him (and he on her) and tried to kill him, and the other has proven (so Coward would have us believe, at least) a termagant. In Coward’s view, at least as presented here, marriage is an unstable, temporary arrangement designed as much as anything else to provide a staging ground for genteel infidelity; marriage is apt to turn abusive, even murderous, and the best thing that can happen to a man is to be rid of the whole wretched thing.

I suspect that Coward’s vision of marriage had something to do with the time and place in which he found himself at the time he wrote the play (England in 1941). Any number of artists who were able to observe and comment upon the institution of upper class marriage in that time and place reached the same general point of view (see, for instance, Evelyn Waugh, Mary Wesley, and Elizabeth Jane Howard). I suspect Coward’s outlook on genteel marriage also had something to do with his being gay in an uncloseted way (not officially so, but it was commonly known) – and hence having no “dog in the fight,” as it were, and being licensed to dispense an outsider’s view.

In total harmony with this acerbic view of these straight people and their marriage is Coward’s default comic trope: the bicker. It keeps happening again and again, particularly between Charles, the writer, and his second wife Ruth, typically propelled by misunderstandings based on the fact that Charles can see and hear the ghost of Elvira, his ex-wife, and Ruth cannot, and at first does not even believe Charles’ protestations that she is in the room with them. It’s funny – up to a point. There are times it can flag and just become tiresome, which in a sense is Coward’s point. We are meant to find it tiresome – tiresome enough to justify a sense of relief when the wives can both be exorcised at the end. But in order for the conclusion to produce comic relief rather than disgust, we have to identify with Charles, and see his henpeckedness as something like actual victimhood, and the exorcism of his wives as a deliverance. Given Charles’ own behavior, including alcoholic overindulgence, infidelity, and a certain childish petulance, this isn’t easy.

Significantly, the 1964 musical adaptation of the play, High Spirits, directed by Coward himself, directly focused on Charles’ self-centered nature, and gave the two wives (both of them spectral by that stage in the action) a duet in which they very effectively called him on it. And then, instead of allowing Charles to escape them, the musical killed off Charles too at the end and showed his shade happily reunited with theirs, which actually is a more comically satisfying way of tying up loose ends. (In killing off Charles, Coward and his collaborators were following David Lean’s approach in the screenplay of the 1945 movie, which confirms that the problem was evident from the start.)

The musical shows convincingly that Coward himself was or became aware of the big problems in the play. But the musical, in which he helped solve them with a couple of other writers, is not produced nowadays, while Blithe Spirit, the play, is frequently revived, with all its problems intact. And now Everyman has essayed it.

As enthusiastic as I am about Everyman, I cannot say that this production exactly nails the play.

The good parts first: Bruce Nelson is splendid as Charles, and Beth Hylton as Evira (depicted above). I cannot imagine an actress doing a better job conveying the sheer joy Elvira takes in making mischief. The set (Daniel Ettinger with special effects by Lewis Shaw incorporated into it) and the costumes (David Burdick) are perfect. I understand that the costumes are styles from the 1920s rather than the war years; it would take someone with greater costume acumen than myself to recognize the difference, but certainly the women could have been flappers. And everyone’s garb is worth looking at, including one wonderful pajama outfit worn by Ruth (Megan Anderson) that resembles as much a work of art as a garment. The special effects built into the set, which include a levitation mechanism and a poltergeist-like spontaneous decomposition of the sitting room, are hilarious.

The good but not as good: Nancy Robinette‘s portrayal of the medium, Madame Arcati, who brings the ghosts into our world. Coward’s jokes with this character are complicated. She is no phony, despite a setup in which we are led to expect she might be. But she has all of the drawbacks that one might expect of a real-life medium if mediums were real-life: despite great enthusiasm, she has limited competence or learning. Moreover, she adheres to a great many principles as if they were technical requirements of her craft (no Indian tea, for instance), and Coward deliberately leaves unresolved whether these are personal eccentricities or actual job requirements. Robinette gets the eccentricity part right, but her portrayal skimps a bit on the other part, an absolute stereotype of the British stage and screen: the jolly spinster filled with English gumption and pluck. (Margaret Rutherford and Beatrice Lillie pioneered the role in the play and the musical respectively, which may give the reader of a certain age a notion of what I’m talking about.)

Finally, the less-than-satisfactory. Megan Anderson is wrong for Ruth. Now Anderson is an actress I greatly admire, having marveled just this season at her turn as The Pilot in Grounded; tough, profane, and ultimately traumatized. But there is nothing about her Ruth that I believe: not the British accent, not the black bobbed hair, not the bickering, and certainly not the notion that a man who had been married to the delectable, kittenish Elvira would invite the stolid kind of character Anderson gives us to succeed Elvira. The play only works at peak capacity if we can sense Charles being torn between his two wives. Here the chemistry between Charles and Elvira is palpable enough, but I never sense anything approaching it between Charles and Ruth.

In the end, this production does little to solve the problems in the play. There is a kind of magic which will exorcise the problems, and let us not notice them: Center Stage’s production of a few years back managed it. This one cruises and coasts on the farcical elements and the bickering and Arcati’s eccentricities, and in so doing it certainly keeps the audience laughing. But it does not dispel the sour taste lingering at the end.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photograph. Photo credit: ClintonBPhotography.

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