Why do the folks at the Olney Theatre Center think they’ve got a knack for Noel Coward? What they’ve got, as far as the evidence allows, is a knack for never getting Coward right: Hay Fever, in the company’s hammy hands, proved about as entertaining as a roll in the ragweed, and if that odd, desperation-laced take on Private Lives wasn’t the abomination the local newspaper of record recorded, it hardly constituted a sparkling success. Now comes director John Going, perpetrator of the aforesaid Hay Fever, with a dutiful—and largely dull, alas—effort at Blithe Spirit, and if the show’s bones remain sturdy enough to keep Madame Arcati et al. from succumbing to his ministrations, they’re only just.

Blithe Spirit, beyond the ghost-story smokescreen and the madcap-medium sleight-of-hand, remains a curious and distinctly Cowardly contradiction: a domestic comedy about the consolations of bachelorhood. It’s not that Charles Condomine, the urbane novelist whose domestic tribulations provide the play’s laughs, doesn’t appreciate the benefits of marriage: Ruth, his briskly civilized second wife, runs the home of every Anglophile’s secret dreams, the sort of establishment in which everyone automatically dresses for dinner and the only thing likely to interrupt a pleasantly cynical breakfast with the Times is the parlormaid’s delivery of Cook’s query about how many we’ll be for lunch. Cleverness is a given, spontaneity unlikely in the extreme, and if the arrangement lacks that certain passion, it at least delivers comforts cerebral and creaturish alike.

And passion, anyway, Charles has had—with Elvira, his dearly departed first wife, who was every inch the vivacious minx Ruth isn’t (and whose memory Ruth pretends not to be jealous of). In Ruth, Charles has gotten the order he thinks he wants after Elvira’s exasperating adorability; in Elvira, he thinks he misses the electricity Ruth couldn’t possibly generate. So when the research-minded Condomine invites the local medium over for dinner and a séance (Charles is plotting a novel involving a sham spiritualist), it’s inevitable that the late Mrs. Condomine will return to take up residence alongside the latest of that name—and it’s all too understandable that the initially unnerved Charles soon begins to suspect he’s been handed the best of this world and the next. Turns out, as Elvira’s temperament and Ruth’s rigid sense of the proprieties meet head-on in the sitting room, that he’s gotten the worst. By the time two marriages and a household lie in pieces around him, all he can think to want is an escape route. Funny, that—and like much of Coward, pretty perceptive about how the selfish and self-satisfied measure down when relationships are the ruler.

What’s most surprising in this latest Olney outing is that almost nobody’s leaning on the laughs—a temptation that’s killed Coward more than once out here in Leisure World Land, where subtleties often go unremarked. Paul DeBoy’s Charles and Julie-Ann Elliott’s Ruth make wry-crisp colleagues in matrimony, delivering their domestic banter with just the right blend of archness and unconcern; DeBoy’s very posture, casually exquisite early on but increasingly uncomfortable as his domestic situation grows rapidly more unbearable, is almost a characterization in itself. James Slaughter offhands his way elegantly through the play as Doctor Bradman, the skeptic next door, and if Rena Cherry Brown doesn’t dither entirely convincingly as his dim, dull bore of a wife, she’s at least not putting scare quotes around her punch lines. Tara Giordano does do a bit broadly with the unlettered-Irish-maid comedy, but the unsubtle signs of overdirection are scrawled all over her performance—Going apparently thinks a recurring gag about the character’s tendency to hurry through her duties is the funniest thing in the Blithe Spirit script—so it’s hard to blame the actress.

It was a delight to consider the prospect of what the resourceful Kate Goehring might do with the title role, but the play’s designated spark plug turns out to be a bit of a blah spirit. Elvira’s usually a bit of a conniver, prone to tantrums but only because she’s got a pretty secure sense of her own sexual power; Goehring’s version seems needy, and a bit of an airhead, too, so while she’s agreeable enough in her beyond-fabulous peignoir and that Marie Antoinette cloud of hair, she’s never quite credible as the disruptive imp the play needs her to be.

Madame Arcati is the showboat role, so Olney has of course given it to Halo Wines, whose signature mannerisms remain very much intact. If you’re a fan, you’ll doubtless be charmed, but if you’re looking for the sturdy English spinster of the script, keep looking. The lane-walking tweeds and birdwatcher brogans that usually make the character’s sudden excursions into woo-woo so side-splitting don’t appear until Act 2, by which time they’re pointless; Olney’s Madame A. makes her first entrance done up in eight yards of Eastern peacockery, looking for all the world like the harem-pantsed charlatan everybody suspects her of being. And where bug-eyed crazy lady might work just as well as the usual matter-of-fact medium, Wines seems to have decided to split the difference. The resulting character ain’t quite right, certainly, but—well, she ain’t quite right.

Nothing’s awful about this Blithe Spirit, but precious little’s great, either, and the primary trouble, as usual with middling Coward, is in the timing. Take that potential howler of a sequence in which Ruth hears scandalous insults in Charles’ exasperated replies to the invisible-except-to-him Elvira: It falls almost entirely flat, largely because the lines aren’t coming at the proper clip—or in the proper configuration. Unless Coward’s been rewriting from beyond the grave, I’m pretty sure the ladies’ lines are supposed to overlap, the better to make Charles’ hapless floundering more believable; Going, apparently unwilling to trust the audience to keep up, has Elliott and Goehring deliver them sequentially, with the inevitable stilted results. Even his traffic-copping makes no sense sometimes—more than once, Ruth confronts stage arrangements that only an idiot could contemplate without understanding that something’s amiss.

Otherwise, the whole business is professional, pretty to look at, and perplexingly unfunny. On an evening when a few laughs would’ve been welcome, the most Going & Co. could inspire in my theater party was a chuckle or two—and that, you’d think, would be enough to bring Coward howling back from the beyond.CP