Thursday, April 24, 2008

Getting into the Spirit

Phyllis Kay haunts Angela Brazil and Fred Sullivan in Blithe Spirit. (Photo by Mark Turek).

I'm often struck not only by the fatuousness of theatrical publicity, but also by the fact that it's diametrically opposed to the actual virtues of the product it's selling. Take, for instance, some of the marketing for Blithe Spirit, at the Trinity Rep through May 4. One feature hinted that director Curt Columbus would be treating the Coward classic "more like a hard-hitting Edward Albee or Sam Shepard play and less like a drawing-room comedy." The writer quoted Artistic Director Columbus further: “I know it sounds funny to say that . . . But you [must] treat it like a dysfunctional family drama.”

Taking up the planted meme, a Rhode Island reviewer later opined of the production, "No need to worry about having to endure a mannered, oh-so-proper drawing room farce. Columbus and his talented troupe of actors have grabbed hold of the human heart of this play, and come up with a dazzling romp . . where substance is at least as important as style."

Strange then, that the actual production should be merely a solid, reliably funny drawing room farce, with little or no actual emotional substance and bearing about as close a resemblance to Edward Albee or Sam Shepard as I do to Brad Pitt.

Not there's not much in the way of hidden depth to Coward - but there are universal currents running through his work: the rueful pull of love long lost, the deceits of sex, and the stifling constraints of domesticity, for example - not to mention the masculine desire for polygamy (just about every Coward play veers toward ménage), or plain old escape (before the final curtain, the hero almost always cuts and runs - a trope Trinity amends, btw). It is, of course, a frank portrait of a gay man's contradictory attitudes toward commitment - that it should be embraced as high comedy by conservative, heterosexual society is an irony, I suppose, that would puzzle only a few evangelicals.

So it's odd that Trinity should capture almost none of this subtext, and thus little of the play's romance. The Wall Street Journal's Terry Teachout was for once right on the money when he described the production (he meant this as praise) as "a flyweight farce devoid of deeper meaning." Director Columbus comes up with all manner of witty stage business, and his principals deliver, if not impeccable accents (oh, who cares, really) then at least impeccably poised bon mots and some inspired physical comedy. But a "hard-hitting" look at "dysfunction" it's not.

Of course maybe that's the whole point: it's somehow thought unhip to admit that Coward still works on his own terms, so we have to pretend we're doing Buried Child rather than Blithe Spirit - or at least we have to when our production trades so obviously in nostalgia. For the secret weapon of this Spirit is its superb set (by James Schuette) and the way it evokes a whole vanished world of elegant, overstuffed ease. Yes, move over Alexander Dodge - you've been bested at your own game; the Huntington's set for Present Laughter was smashing, but a tad Manhattan-generic, and lacked the thorough sophistication and specificity of Schuette's slightly skewed, chandelier-and-chintz fantasia (even the magazines stashed onstage are exactly right). My only possible quibble with Schuette's decisions was the Picasso over the mantle (would the real Noel have been so avant?) - only the painting itself, with its entwined, ghostly, angular lovers, was so thematically appropriate that I couldn't complain. What's more, not all the set's charms are on its surface - but I'll leave the details of its wonderful, poltergeistic collapse to your own discovery.

Coward rehearses for a CBS presentation of Blithe Spirit with Lauren Bacall (Ruth), Mildred Natwick (Madame Arcati) and Claudette Colbert (Elvira).

I'm going on about the set (and the generally superb design) because it seemed, intentionally or not, to be the production's major artistic statement - implying that Blithe Spirit, penned just after the Battle of Britain, was essentially about maintaining the plushly frivolous tradition of British farce even in the face of death. Just in case you've never heard the plot, it follows the otherwordly exploits of Charles Condomine, a Cowardesque writer who unexpectedly conjures the ghost of his first wife during a séance - much to the discomfort of his second wife. This, of course, is only an ectoplasmic tweak on the plots of Private Lives and Design for Living (Coward claimed to have written the play in just five days, and why not - he'd written it before) - but the script's astral aspects do offer the occasional spooky thrill, and it's easy to see that in London during the Blitz, the deployment of death as just another trope of 30's-era romantic farce would have a comforting appeal (the show ran in the West End for most of the war). And curiously, Trinity conjures an echo of this same sense of comfort in the present day, which, if not exactly on a par with the Blitz, does offer its own troubling sense of uncertainty.

And to be fair, the Trinity cast scrappily holds its own against all the chintz (if only just). Fred Sullivan, Jr. made a clever, credibly heterosexual Coward factotum - rather than suavely debonaire, he was impishly spoiled - but even if he seemed genuinely straight, he still didn't connect romantically with either of his two wives, living or dead. Angela Brazil meanwhile didn't even try to channel second wife Ruth's insecurity or controlling neurosis - instead she was athletically hearty, of all things, which was still fun, particularly when she was leaping into the air, searching for hidden strings to explain the "unexplained." Alas, Phyllis Kay proved just as hale as the ectoplasmic Elvira - quick with a quip, but about as sensual, or seductive, as Mary Poppins. Against all this too, too solid flesh, Barbara Meek was in a bit of a tight spot as the bike-riding medium, Madame Arcati - whose defining gag is that she's so earthily eccentric (as memorably essayed by Margaret Rutherford in David Lean's charming film version) - but Meek was up to the challenge, and made of Arcati an amusingly unruffled and honest professional. But the best performances of the evening came from Cynthia Strickland and William Damkoehler as two benighted upper crust guests at the séance - both deployed fully-developed characterizations with only a minimum of lines, but Strickland's frumpy matron, thanks to a truly ghastly dress and 'do, was truly a scream. She alone perhaps outshone the chandelier.


  1. Hey Brad.
    Good review. I've played Charles in three very different productions of 'Blithe,' and on one occassion the director wanted to fade the lights on the sound of a distant British air-raid signal. (I grew up in an English school, and people sequestered in the rurals told me they could hear the siren-sounds coming from London when the air was in the right direction.) Vide the Albee reference, I suspect someone just thought that it'd attract folks who just new A from "Who's Afraid," sadly meaning: most people. I also doubt Coward as Albee's progenitor: if it was anyone, it was Thurber, a passion of Albee's. Curiously, in the Gussow bio he omits mentioning the Thurber story "The Cane in the Corridor," which is 90% Albee decades before Albee started writing. Robert Bonotto

  2. Brad? Who's Brad?

    I've never read, or even heard of, "The Cane in the Corridor," but now I've got to track it down.

    And thanks for the interesting note about the British air-raid signal. I'm intrigued by the fact that I've just seen two plays that I think of as being small "classics" - Blithe Spirit and A Delicate Balance which both worked extremely well because they were set so precisely in their original periods. Makes you wonder what it would be like to see Shakespeare in tights.