- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 13, 2004

A fizz-free production of Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” is like sitting in a doctor’s office for two hours without a magazine to read. While Olney Theatre Center’s production is not that excruciating, its overall lack of effervescence does make the show something of a chore.

Mr. Coward’s caustic comedies should go down like a faultlessly mixed dry martini — coldly invigorating and containing quite a kick. Despite fine performances by Halo Wines, Tara Giordano and Kate Goehring, “Blithe Spirit” is closer to a warm shot of Gatorade than a glass of Bombay gin and vermouth kissed by an olive.

Written in 1941, “Blithe Spirit” was inspired by the playwright’s visit to Evangeline Astley Cooper’s English estate, where he was awakened by a shaking bed, only to find out the next day that he had mistakenly been put in a “haunted” room. This experience, combined with his fondness for his eccentric friend Clemence Dane (the impetus for the play’s indelible character, the colorful psychic Madame Arcati), spurred him to write “Blithe Spirit” in a record six days.

It’s a tart honey of a play, full of razored dialogue and the airy sophistication we expect from Mr. Coward — who, by the way, was so charmed by the play’s success that he returned to the stage to take over the central role of Charles Condomine, a novelist researching the occult for one of his books.

“Blithe Spirit” takes place in Charles’ (Paul DeBoy) lavishly appointed living room at his house in Kent.



He is preparing for the night’s entertainment, a seance with Madame Arcati (Miss Wines) arranged by his second wife, Ruth (Julie-Ann Elliott).

The seance is meant to amuse, but the unexpected happens when Charles’ first wife, Elvira (Miss Goehring), who died young seven years before, pops up from the afterlife and decides to linger for a spell. Visible only to Charles, Elvira’s playful spirit wreaks havoc on his marriage to the alive and well Ruth.

“Blithe Spirit’s” success depends on a certain daffy insouciance. The audience needs to feel a voyeuristic thrill as it eavesdrops on the rarified lives of the rich, revolving around endless parties, teas, cocktails and ordering around the servants.

But this production, under the direction of John Going, has a plebeian air to it. Miss Elliott and Mr. DeBoy are brittle, their hauteur boorish rather than utterly charming. So snappish and unappealing are these portrayals that you wholeheartedly push for their comeuppance.

James Slaughter and Rena Cherry Brown fare better as the amiably dotty friends of the Condomines, but it is Miss Goehring — whose voice holds an engaging Tallulah Bankhead husk — who best embodies the aristocratic mien necessary for a Noel Coward comedy.

As Elvira, Miss Goehring is naughty and lighter than air, giving the impression of a ghostly, unforgettable figure even when burdened by a train on her negligee that kept getting caught on the furniture. As an earthier presence, Miss Wines is a pip as Madame Arcati, minxish and kooky without overplaying the showy role. She plays the part, especially in the seance scenes, with great heartiness and appetite, which is miles away from chewing up the scenery.

In the small role of the maid Edith, who does her chores at warp speed, Miss Giordano makes the most of her moments onstage.

It is no secret that farce is one of the most difficult things to pull off, as everything depends on split-second timing and buoyancy. Olney’s staging of “Blithe Spirit” remains doggedly earthbound, haunted by the presence of what might have been.

**

WHAT: “Blithe Spirit” by Noel Coward

WHERE: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m., Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Nov. 7.

TICKETS: $15 to $36

PHONE: 301/924-3400

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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