The British have all those ghosts in Shakespeare and Dickens; they even have Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit (at Actor's Rep Theatre through April 24), in which the ghost of a man's first wife returns to pester both him and his snippy little second wife, with complications ensuing.
And what do we Americans have in the way of ghost stories? Poltergeist and its sequels. Ghostbusters.
What we have is: We don't want to talk about it. We like to think we're the land of the free, the young and the deathless. But back in 1941, Coward was willing to confront death with comedy, even in the midst of the London Blitz. Have age and geography gotten in the way of Blithe Spirit's message?
No, the play's still a classic. But a slow-moving production -- even one as well acted as the current ARt show is -- robs Coward's dialogue of its pizzazz. And with three acts and two intermissions stretching nearly three hours, director Michael Weaver's production lumbers on past its welcome. (At that length, any comedy would seem prolonged.) Audiences can only smile over witty repartee for so long before their grins begin to freeze. (It's not as if passages can't be cut: David Lean's 1945 movie with Rex Harrison lasts just 96 minutes.)
These characters like to talk and talk and then talk some more -- and it's good talk, wonderful talk -- but the celebrated Coward witticisms need to be tossed off in paragraphs, not isolated bons mots. And while first-night failures in picking up cues can be remedied, static direction in the two-person scenes (too much sitting around) seems less likely to be. Weaver allows some husband-wife scenes to stagnate into quiescence, and the slow pace flattens the champagne's fizz.
Whether it's the "flying" pots that Elvira "magically" carries around, the overturned tables during the seances or the fury of women scorned during some of the wife vs. husband arguments, the more energetic scenes arrive in this production as welcome relief from an excess of static conversation.
As the psychic Madame Arcati -- a '40s-era Miss Cleo -- Karen Nelson and her sheer energy provide a needed corrective. Nelson, eccentric and stagey, sways to her own unheard drummer without overdoing it. She's aware that some deluded souls persist in their skepticism about something so obvious as the presence of spirits among us. Eyes wide with anticipation, sniffing the air for ectoplasmic manifestations, she may be a wacko, but she's a reasonable wacko: Fortune tellers are, in her opinion, mere charlatans. Nelson plays one scene wearing a maroon beret and gobbling down cucumber sandwiches, her appetite signifying her sheer gusto: She's hungry for life, and skeptics be damned.
As Elvira, the ghostly wife who returns to pester her ex-husband Charles and his new wife Ruth, Chasity Kohlman is quite a handful -- sexy, independent, ever so naughty. After she flutters across the room in her silvery gown a few times, she and her widower husband Charles (Tim Kniffin) get down to the important business of alternately flirting and bickering. And they keep up the sexual tension pretty well for a couple who basically can't touch one another.
Page Byers sniffs derisively and stomps about haughtily as Ruth, the present-day wife who really is put into an impossible situation: Is it really asking too much for dear old Elvira to remain dear, old and dead?
Technical elements help complete the picture. The set, by Kate Olsen and Sam Schroeder, with its red velvet lounge chairs, bookcases and throw rugs, looks invitingly posh. Kelly Taverner's lighting design is especially effective during the s & eacute;ance scenes, casting an eerie pinkish glow on the participants while truly keeping the rest of the action in the dark. Costumers Lisa Caryl and Rebecca Cook bedeck Madame Arcati in a flowing, gauzy brown dress shot through with gold thread, orange gypsy scarves encircling her head; they even provide a couple of ornate smoking jackets for Charles that I wouldn't at all mind having for my own personal jammies.
Any production of Blithe Spirit rests on the shoulders of Charles Condomine, who must travel from being skeptical about all this s & eacute;ance business to believing in it devoutly -- from desiring first one wife and then the other, then rather enjoying the bigamist's bounty, and finally wishing to rid himself of his entire harem.
It's the details in Kniffin's acting that fascinate. He may rely too much on indicating Charles' British hauteur by elevating his nose into the stratosphere; nonetheless, Kniffin has his little tricks. At first, he enjoys a private smirk while serving dry martinis. Later, when it appears that both his wives may remain in his house indefinitely, Kniffin manages to keep his face wrinkled in a supercilious grimace even as he widens his eyes in fear. A sneer curls, then freezes on his lips. Strands of lacquered gray hair dangle from his elegant forehead: As if imitating his own hair, his life is slowly unraveling. At last Kniffin confronts his two harridan wives, scrunching his nose cynically and fuming in a good long slow burn.
The Kingdom of Noel is a verbal play land: It presents a heightened version of ourselves in which we're all waving cigarette holders about while coining insults and maxims for the ages. If only we could be so witty in real life. If only ARt's production could be more concise.
Ironically, Ruth opens the final scene -- after we've already been cooped up with these people for well over two and a half hours -- by asking if everyone (onstage) doesn't feel exhausted by all this talk.
Throughout the Spartan Theater, audience members shifted uncomfortably in their seats.