Short notice no problem for 'Blithe Spirit'
When the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said, "Hell is other people," he could have had in mind the characters in Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit." These entertainingly unpleasant people — the self-important writer Charles Condomine and his two grasping, petty wives — dwell in self-created hells from which there is, to use another Sartreism, no exit.
The new production of the entertaining 1941 classic at Medford's Randall Theatre, briskly directed by Susan Aversa-Orrego, catches the foibles of Condomine (Jonathan Matthews), his domineering wife, Ruth (Victoria Simone Stewart), and the spirit of his first wife, Elvira (Stephanie Jones), as it limns the chill underlying Coward's vision of this department of Hell.
It is the late 1930s, and Condomine, a martini-swilling writer living comfortably at his house in Kent (the set, with its bookshelves, fireplace and ever-present liquor table, oozes period, middle-class coze), conceives a plan to research his next novel, which will be about a murderous medium, by inviting a "real" medium, Madame Arcati, to his home to hold a seance.
Enter Pam Ward, who in a flamboyantly comic performance as the eccentric medium almost steals the show. Things go very wrong when the seance conjures up Elvira, whom nobody but Charles can see and hear, at least at first.
The egotistical Charles has had a shockingly cavalier attitude toward Elvira's death, and he now sees her primarily as a nuisance. Competitive, controlling Ruth at first refuses to believe in Elvira's presence, but when she's finally convinced, she and Charles decide that what's needed is an exorcism, which means another visit from Madame Arcati — and further disastrous complications.
While the play has the intricate plotting of a darkly witty melodrama, Coward's real business is revealing to us his characters' empty centers. The shallowness of Matthews' smug, urbane Condomine is matched by that of the demanding Ruth and the child-like sex kitten Elvira, who breezes about in white slippers and a diaphanous nightgown.
Arcati sweeps in like a vision from some mystical carnival in a bejeweled turban, long, white gloves and almost clownish makeup. Ward's voice is a big, supple instrument, and she uses it to full effect as the medium alternately fusses about the business of her strange craft and shoots zingers at her hosts when they don't seem to take her "profession" with enough gravity.
While there were a few opening-night line glitches, the cast acquits itself quite well in tossing off signature Coward witticisms such as "Nobody could call you even remotely ethereal" and "It's considered vulgar to say 'dead' on the other side." The script brims with coinages such as "modified interpretive" and "astral bigamist."
The Randall, hidden away on Front Street just north of downtown, has been on a bit of a roll of late, and this delicious production keeps it going. The play originally planned for this time, "Misery," had its production stopped by an ongoing lawsuit several weeks into rehearsals, but as we know, the show must go on, and with a little set and costume help from their friends at Talent's Camelot Theatre, "Blithe Spirit" was put together quickly. It doesn't show it.
Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.