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Blithe Spirit, said its famously glib author, works “on a plane just above reality. If it comes down to solid ground for a moment it will disintegrate.” In Arena Stage’s stylish new production of Noel Coward’s supernaturally funny drawing-room comedy, the proceedings are nearly as lighthearted as they need to be. But at crucial moments it becomes obvious that director Kyle Donnelly didn’t take Coward’s caution to heart.
Oh, Arena’s production never falls apart, and it’s certainly nowhere near the “weary exhibition of bad taste” that Graham Greene thought he witnessed in London. Occasionally, though, the pace flags (though the evening still clocks in at under three hours), and every now and then Donnelly’s cast loses sight of the fact that the humor in Coward’s brittle plays usually comes not from the inconvenient situations his characters find themselves in, but from the improbably mannered restraint they display in coping with them.
When Charles Condomine (Terrence Caza) and his domineering wife, Ruth (Pamela Nyberg), find themselves sharing their country household with the accidentally conjured ghost of Charles’s late wife, Elvira (Ellen Karas), their reaction isn’t so much fright as frustration: How inconvenient; how undignified. “I grieve to see that your sojourn into the other world hasn’t improved you in the least,” Charles says to Elvira, who has still got a licentious side despite “seven years in the echoing vaults of eternity.” Resplendent in brilliantine and dinner jacket, Caza handles lines like these with utter aplomb; he’s got Charles’ brand of pompous self-absorption down perfectly, which is why it’s jarring when once or twice he lets his character’s peevishness become panic. But Nyberg never really captures Ruth’s icy aloofness, though she certainly looks formidable in that Hitchcock-blonde way, and Karas, who makes what is arguably the most over-the-top entrance in any local production this season, seems occasionally less than completely secure about Elvira’s sensuality. Karas is appropriately voluptuous, and costumer Paul Tazewell has put her in a drop-dead strapless number, but her shimmy has a vaguely tentative quality, if you can imagine such a thing, and she appears to have doubts about her ability to slink. She does both reasonably well, actually; it’s just that she doesn’t seem to want to do them, which makes Elvira’s manipulations seem more self-conscious than selfish.
Luckily, there’s Tana Hicken, who brought a marvelous implacability to her shrewish character in Arena’s recent Dance of Death and returns for a giddy performance as Madame Arcati, the medium who summons Elvira during a seance and is enlisted to return her whence she came. Hicken is howlingly funny, the very picture of the stereotypically vigorous English country spinster; Arcati is the one Blithe Spirit role that allows for outsize physicality, and Hicken relishes the opportunity, pumping her arms calisthenically as Arcati prepares to conjure, striding about the parlor in her sturdy shoes, and twitching her way through various trances. The production perks up every time she walks on stage, and needless to say she steals every scene she’s in.
Nancy Robinette (who has absolutely mastered the awkward laugh of the socially maladroit) turns up in a small but funny role as a dowdy doctor’s wife, but aside from Hicken’s inspired performance, the Arena production’s greatest pleasures lie in its careful technical design. Lights and sound, by Michael Philippi and Timothy Thompson, are precisely nuanced and intensely dramatic without being obtrusive, and Thomas Lynch’s ingenious set looms off-kilter and oversize above the performers, simultaneously underscoring the Condomines’ ordered lifestyle and hinting at the upsets to come. Everything—walls, furniture, carpets, and costumes—is done in shades of gray, the better to establish the sedate atmosphere that’s disturbed by Elvira’s arrival in scarlet satin; attention to detail is impressive: Charles’ phonograph even comes with that blocky British electrical plug. If everything about Arena’s Blithe Spirit had been this carefully considered, it would have been as archly amusing an evening as its creator intended. Instead, it’s pretty to look at and occasionally funny, but a trifle obvious and earthbound—which would have sent Coward directly to the other side.CP