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BWW Reviews: There's a Lot of Fun in Artists Rep's BLITHE SPIRIT...If You're Willing to Wait

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It appears that audiences' attention spans have been shrinking for centuries. Shakespeare's plays, uncut, can run more than four hours. Plays from the 1920s and 1930s routinely were in three acts and ran about three hours. In the 1950s and 1960s, the standard was two acts and two hours. Most plays produced now are barely more than an hour and play without intermission. And after years of watching television and movies and videos and commercials, audiences don't need to have things explained in detail; we can catch up with the characters a lot faster. (We also don't have the patience to sit for four hours without access to our cell phones.)

I can enjoy a long play if there's a lot going on. August: Osage County, Angels in America, even some of the big O'Neill dramas - I'm there and happy to watch the drama unfold. But when it comes to comedy, three hours is a long sit. Some of the Kaufman and Hart classics from the 1930s, for example, get dreary when the third act comes along and we're still waiting for a resolution. There really is no such thing as an epic comedy. Most of Woody Allen's comic films, for instance, wrap it up in about ninety minutes, and most come in under two hours. Ever actually sit through It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the three-hour comic extravaganza from 1963? There are funny moments, but it's a long, long, long, long flick - even when you have access to the pause button.

So when I saw that the running time of Artists Rep's production of Blithe Spirit was listed as two hours and forty-five minutes plus intermission...I was concerned. And rightly so. Noel Coward tended to take his time about getting the plot in motion. We start off with lots of banter between Charles and Ruth, husband and wife, living in the English countryside in the early 1940s. He's a novelist, she's his second wife, and they've invited some friends over to participate in a seance. Charles is researching a book about a medium, and he thinks it'll be a hoot to have Madame Arcati, the town's eccentric psychic, come in and do her thing so he can make fun of her. It's a long, long time until the friends show up, and then the psychic arrives, and after a lot of business, we get the result: Charles's first wife, Elvira, is summoned from beyond. Only Charles can see or hear her, but she moves objects around and makes her presence known to others as well. Eventually, of course, this drives Ruth crazy, and she tries to get Arcati to send Elvira back to where she came from. Elvira has her own agenda - trying to kill Charles so he'll join her in the afterlife - but that backfires as well.

Coward, unfortunately, wrote his plays after the copyright laws were passed, so theatres can't go changing his work. And that's a shame. Buried under all the quips, banter, and snark is an interesting play, with a plot that could really be moving and funny if played right. Similar plotlines have worked in other media; my all-time favorite film is a little-known English comedy called Truly Madly Deeply that also involves a loved one returning from the dead. Director Christopher Liam Moore piles on the style, making sure every line is crisp, every costume is beautiful, and every cue is timed just right, but he can't cut the script, which is the one thing that would help. By Act Two, when the comedy becomes more physical, we're laughing, but Act One is a long sit.

The actors do what they can to help. Michael Mendelson is perfectly at home as Charles, swanning about in dinner jackets and a pencil mustache, delivering Coward's bons mots as if they were freshly minted. He reminded me of the great Paxton Whitehead, whose deep voice and eternal seriousness made him an invaluable farceur - and that's a high compliment from me. Jill Van Velzer was wonderful as Ruth, who becomes more and more exasperated as the play goes on; she also looked smashing in Nancy Hills's costumes, but then everyone did. Sara Hennessy tried to make Elvira charming, but the character is rather tiresome, and Hennessy often became shrill in her attempts to get Charles's attention, and ours.

The gifted Allen Nause and JoAnn Johnson were crisply funny in the small roles of the Bradmans, the friends who come to visit, but Val Landrum made a smashing success of Edith, the maid; her every entrance and exit was an opportunity for physical comedy, and she kept Act One from growing totally dreary. And Vana O'Brien was a complete hit as Madame Arcati; the role is one of those supporting parts that's built for an actor to go to town on, and O'Brien smartly chose not to go over the top, knowing that the character is already pretty wild as written. (O'Brien was also helped by the costumer, who gave her outfits that looked like something Carol Burnett would have worn in a movie parody.)

Scenic designer Alan Schwanke and lighting designer Kristeen Willis Crosser gave the cast and crew a lovely, airy set to play in, while sound deisgner Rodolfo Ortega mixed period songs with Coward's own compositions, including Tammy Grimes singing "While You May" from the 1964 musical version of Blithe Spirit, called High Spirits and directed by Coward himself.

All in all, a beautiful production with a talented cast of a play that had some lovely moments. I walked out of the theater smiling. I just wish I hadn't been there quite so long. I'm sure Noel Coward would have a smart remark to make about that.


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From This Author Patrick Brassell

Patrick Brassell is the author of five published novels and five produced plays. He has directed, produced, and designed sound for about fifty theater productions, (read more...)