Noël Coward almost certainly exercised proper thought when he named his play Blithe Spirit, and the title is worth keeping in mind as you watch the new Players of Utica production, running through February 21. This is Players’ second classic farce of the season, following last November’s Boeing-Boeing, and it has me wishing for Twain’s Is He Dead?, or Feydeau’s A Little Hotel On the Side next. Coward wrote Blithe Spirit in 1941, during a 6-day writing binge. He recalled: “On Friday evening, May ninth, the play was finished and, disdaining archness and false modesty, I will admit that I knew it was witty, I knew it was well constructed, and I also knew that it would be a success.” The play ran in the West End for 1,997 performances, a record until 1957.
Adam Lawless plays socialite/novelist Charles Cardomine, who engages a medium (Madame Arcati, played by Cathy Mosher) to conduct a séance at his house. Comedic action unfolds in keeping with the name of the play. The cast is rounded out by Hana Myers, Kris Majka, Adam Kaczor, Debra Harrison and Jessica Sherman – I won’t reveal much about these, because both Coward and director James Gifford have surprises in store.
Gifford’s Director’s Note states, in clever homage to Coward’s style: “I felt confident that he wouldn’t have minded my brash updating of his story to the present day… Noël is applauding me from Heaven I am sure, because his dialogue and humor are timeless, after all.” Some of the updates work fine, some are Easter Eggs (trivia that doesn’t quite work – fun to identify), and some are head-scratchers. Gifford’s most significant change is stronger in concept than execution – I kept waiting for comedic reverberations that didn’t come, because the modification is executed much too timidly, particularly for farce. But I don’t want to spoil the surprise. Suffice to say, if you’ve seen Blithe Spirit before, you haven’t seen it like this.
Jessica Sherman is better than I’ve ever seen her, in a role that fits perfectly. Her costume and makeup are exquisite, and lead to one of the evening’s biggest laughs when those are reprised later on. Adam Kaczor does a terrific job at becoming drunk over a long scene – his movement and deteriorating diction had me enthralled, while his face seemed to redden with intoxication. The props and set crew (Art Felshaw, Vince Scalise, Joe Caruso, bob Kaplan, Elaine Kaplan) deserve special notice for the climactic effects that provide a satisfying conclusion; I didn’t know how they’d pull it off, but it works.
The cast’s British accents need to be considered in terms of the whole company. Some do better than others, but the overall illusion depends on the weakest link. It’s a judgment call – since the play was already somewhat altered, it might have worked to let everyone perform in Central New York voices (unlike Boeing-Boeing, which featured several nationalities.) When accents are used, individual consistency is most important – even if the actors don’t quite nail the voice, it’s still OK if each remains committed to their own take. When they slip in and out, the effect is like a singer going flat. (Admittedly, this bugs me more than it does others.)
I sat near several people who didn’t know the play going in – all enjoyed the plot and the antics. I liked watching them react at key moments. Director, cast and crew did well bringing the best of Coward to life, so to speak. Coward wrote that he had some trepidation about telling a ghost story in wartime Britain. He concluded that if the characters were “thoroughly heartless, you can’t sympathise with any of them. If there was a heart it would be a sad story.” This is not a sad story. It’s a classic, and it’s still vital.