Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Flagging Spirit

Kathy St. George reaches out to the unknown in Blithe Spirit. Photos by Mark S. Howard.

The spirit is willing in the Lyric Stage's new production of Blithe Spirit (which plays through June 5); and you can't say the flesh is weak - indeed, everyone is obviously putting their shoulder to the wheel in this earthbound version of Noel Coward's famous 40's farce.

But maybe that's the problem - here, the flesh is too strong; everyone's so strenuously trying to put the show over that it never achieves the sense of sophisticated ease that was Coward's ideal. In a word, you can't be "blithe" when you're breaking a sweat. And everyone's trying so hard because, I think, deep down they're all aware (old pros that they are) that nobody's quite right for what they're doing.

Now when it comes to small theatre, we're all used to the approximate - and no doubt Rex Harrison wasn't available for this production. And can you really complain when a local cast includes Paula Plum, Anne Gottlieb, Richard Snee, Kathy St. George and Sarah deLima, all of them dragging a veritable litany of awards or nominations behind them? No, I suppose you can't.

Still, Coward only thrives when it's precise. And precise in an amusingly off-hand manner - a manner that's not director Spiro Veloudos's strong suit, to be honest. Veloudos is a clever comic director, but you'd never accuse him of too light a touch; he likes to nail things down, whereas Coward affected such indifference that he actually advised actors to keep delivering their lines straight through their laughs. Something tells me that didn't actually happen often in Coward's productions, of course, but it gives you an idea of the atmosphere he was trying to conjure: since he dashed the play off in just half an hour, darling, he couldn't possibly wait for you to finish laughing as there was a yacht waiting for him bound for the Riviera!

To be fair, the Lyric cast does win those laughs; Kathy St. George in particular practically wrestles them out of the audience. But there's little sense of elegant sheen to the evening, and the pace is often stumbling, and to be honest, even the theme of the play feels obscure. Just about all of Coward's best scripts depend on the same plot: the duel between old sex and new sex. Usually old sex wins out (Private Lives, Present Laughter); sometimes no sex wins out (Blithe Spirit); and sometimes there's a hard-won tie (Design for Living). (New sex almost always loses, which may be why conservatives always adored Coward, even as he toyed with bisexuality and various forms of ménage right before their eyes.)

Paula Plum and Richard Snee ponder some astral bigamy.

But director Veloudos - and alas, star Richard Snee - seem never to have awoken to the importance of the emotional backbone of the play. As Coward factotum "Charles Condomine" (a reference to "condominium" or "condiment"? You decide!) Snee does a heterosexual version of debonair pretty well - probably better than Coward did - but he seems to have confused "debonair" with "disinterested," and thus appears bored with both new and old sex. That is, in either controlling second wife Ruth (Anne Gottlieb), or impetuous late wife Elvira (Paula Plum), whose blithe spirit has been accidentally summoned from the beyond by the eccentric Madame Arcati (St. George). To be blunt, the arc for this "astral bigamist" should be the typical Coward one of delight in the return of romantic excitement, followed by frustration as that excitement devolves into petty egotism. But here that arc never happens.

Even though, as Elvira, Paula Plum does her best to strike a romantic spark. The smart, sensible Plum doesn't naturally have the touch of exoticism we expect from Elvira, but she compensates with a really wonderful sense of romantic swoon (plus she looks great in costumer Charles Schoonmaker's Lily-Munster get-up). Likewise St. George, who usually plays sprites, is simply miscast as Madame Arcati - the joke here is that the medium is more a British bloodhound (albeit with an unexpected mystical talent) than a flibbertigibbet. But St. George doesn't take no for an answer, and slowly she wins the audience over through sheer enthusiasm. Alas, as the slightly-brittle Ruth, Anne Gottlieb doesn't really get the same chance; Veloudos has directed her too obviously (her control issues should creep up on us, not be declared in the first scene), and for once Schoonmaker has gone wrong by costuming her in the same vampy style he has given Elvira.

All this isn't enough to actually sink the show - it just keeps it from soaring. There are nice touches here and there, and Brynna Bloomfield's set gets the job done (although it doesn't blow apart with nearly the poltergeistic brio of the wittier Trinity Rep version last spring). And after the cast settles in (there were a few dropped lines on opening), a smoother rhythm may develop for Coward's banter. In short, it may simply take some time for this soufflé to rise; for certainly these talented folks have the spirit in them to be blithe.