A Noise Within
“There’s no guarantee,” a character in Noel Coward’s enduring drawing room comedy Blithe Spirit tells us, “that the afterlife could be any less exasperating than this one,” proving when it comes to literary revelations on the quality of our species’ existence, nothing much has changed in 70 years.
Everyone from Sir Donald Wolfit to Edward Kean has been attributed with the wisecrack “Dying is easy, comedy is hard,” but since the origin of the phrase remains in question, somebody should simply credit Coward. This enduring classic featuring dead ex-wives materializing over afternoon tea is trotted out far too many times and far too unsuccessfully by theatre companies who want to parade their skills but instead simply reveal that their collective slips are showing, but touched by the visual whimsy of director Damaso Rodriguez and featuring charmingly atmospheric design elements from Kurt Boetcher (whose richly appointed set performs some smashing tricks of its own), spectral lighting by James P. Taylor, and incredible period costuming by E.B. Brooks, this resurrection of Sir Noel’s silly old warhorse couldn’t be more entertaining.
Infused with prodigious topical references all-too modern when the play first opened in London in 1941, from Madame Arcati’s spirit guide Daphne’s penchant for the music of Irving Berlin to the psychic spouting “Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go” (which did come first, the ditty or the dwarves?), this quintessential Spirit is liberally slathered with Rodriguez’s knack for subtly slapstick minutia and uniformly blessed with precision comedic performances.
The gifted ensemble is led by Scott Lowell who, despite projecting too loudly in the intimate three-sided playing space, works himself into a fine frenzy as haunted writer Charles Condomine, a character who should have been born a few decades later when Prozac would become readily available. Abby Craden, who in Monica Lisa Sabedra’s deathly white zombie make-up resembles Ava Gardner returned to earth for a big budget remake of Night of the Living Dead, is comedic ambrosia as Charles’ late but not-so-departed first wife Elvira, the perfect foil for the neatly pulled-together Jill Van Velzer as his frustrated and soon-to-be departed present wife Ruth.
Gibby Brand as Dr. Bradman and the always hilarious Jacque Lynn Colton as his sweetly ball-breaking wife (I defy you to keep a straight face when her voice drops a few Yma Sumac-ian octaves to tell Brand “There’s no need to snap at me, George” or when she discusses his lost treatise on hyperplasia of the abdominal glands) are both pleasantly stuffy as their eager yet veddy provincially-British neighbors, invited to join the spooky titillation of the pivotal table-knocking séance presided over by Jane Macfie as eccentric local bicycling psychic Madame Arcati, who in turn rolls her “R’s” with juicy delight while delivering her character’s steady string of what Ruth calls “schoolgirl phraseology.”
Alison Elliott completes the cast with deadpanned abandon as the Condomine’s clumsy maid-in-training Edith, moving through the action—meant as a compliment, mind you—as though her movement coaches were the hippos in Fantasia.
If anything might be slightly off, it’s in the manners of the three feuding Condomines, living and dead, as at times their publicly aired quarrelling seems inappropriate to the era—and the play—when a more civil side-of-the-mouth aside while sipping their extra-dry martinis might suffice. Still, if we all put our hands on the table palms-down and hum “Always,” perhaps we could conjure more presentations like this. Except for minor quibbles, it’s definitely Coward as it should be played.
Blithe Spirit plays through Dec. 17 at A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Bl., Glendale; for tickets, call 818.240.0910 or log on at www.ANoiseWithin.org