Friday, April 4, 2008

Trinity Rep's Blithe Spirit

Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, written at a sprinter’s pace over five days in 1941 and performed with Phidippidal perseverance for the next several years, is a product of, and an homage to, times made conditional by war. Ostensibly a comedy about the exasperating and disruptive return of a writer’s dead wife, it is also about the plastic nature of time itself: years pass, people change, histories are re-remembered, and what seems like just yesterday may really be an adumbration of tomorrow. Perhaps in the eschatological mood of the early 1940s—when civilization itself seemed singularly intent on suicide and each day was provisional—stories about the indeterminacy of the future and the fungibility of the past were not mere luxuries but cultural consolations. Countering the high-pitched sentiments of patriotism, destiny, and sacrifice that resonate through a nation at war, Coward’s play suggests that since death is not only pleasant but negotiable—it’s more a nuisance than a menace—survivor’s guilt is a poetic extravagance rather than a ritual necessity. This may be an important message in fatuous and fearful times: it just isn’t very funny. The refusal to take tragic ages tragically (per D. H. Lawrence) is a particular hallmark of the British disposition, and there’s something strained in the translation of Blithe Spirit to an American stage even in our own tragic times. The show begins as a drawing-room comedy, develops into a satire of the British fascination with the occult, and then regresses into a misogynistic farce. The trajectory of my own impressions, charting along these changes in tone, started with mild engagement, drifted towards enjoyment, and then plummeted into disappointment. I have never eaten the famous boiled beef of the British Isles but I imagine the experience is similar.

In the opening scene, writer Charles Condomine and his second wife, Ruth, are preparing themselves for a séance that evening—“preparing” being a euphemism for inebriating—during which Charles will collect information for a new book he’s planning about a fraudulent clairvoyant. Coward portrays without judgment the trivial lives of his main characters: the Condomines drink several martinis, scold their nervous new servant, Edith—but only gently—and trade barbs about Charles’s first wife and the nature of love. Their guests, Dr. and Mrs. Bradman, arrive with a flourish, Dr. Bradman’s taxidermal akwardness a stark contrast to his wife’s dynamitic presence. Finally Madame Arcati, the local medium, makes the scene. She has ridden a bicycle to the house.

The séance itself, which Charles has anticipated with a skeptic’s zeal, proves that Madame Arcati is no phony. The spirit she summons is that of Charles’s first wife, Elvira, who is visible and audible only to Charles. Elvira’s not particularly divine presence—it’s full of physical yearning and a genteel profanity—is a terrific jab at the seriousness of the British occult tradition. Indeed, the source of the play’s friction is that Elvira, having been called to this realm, is unable to make her way back; she’s like a commuter stymied by public transportation’s fickle schedule. So much for spectral powers. As her return goes on “indefinitely,” her honeymooner’s enthusiasm sours to shrewish querulousness and she and Charles resume the sort of petty fighting that marked their relationship when she was still alive. While this narrative twist spikes our clichés about death, dying, and the art of living—for an elaboration on those, see Thornton Wilder’s Our Town—it also stinks of hackneyed misogyny. We have been given no evidence of Charles’s venality and vanity, explicit or implied, so Elvira’s excoriation of his character feels unjustified and simply vindictive. This sort of meanness does not seem to me particularly funny: it reinforces dull and desiccated stereotypes about controlling wives and vengeful husbands. The surprise of seeing our reductive ideas of death’s finality and memory’s sanctity overturned is nullified by Coward’s confirmation of our lazy ideas about marriage.

The performances are as varied as the show’s tone. Phyllis Kay, whose Queen Elizabeth in Richard III was a steely obstacle to Richard’s bloody rise to power, gives her characterization of Elvira a devilishly conspiratorial quality, but she also suffuses it with sympathy. Hers is easily the richest, most engaging performance of the evening. Angela Brazil, playing the confused and frustrated Ruth, is charming—in the way that Lucille Ball was charming. The part is physically and vocally stressful and her strident, convulsive performance may be a solution to the problem of space. If she had had fewer square feet to wheel around in, and fewer seats in the dark distance of the theater—where I was sitting—to throw her voice to, she might have been able to relax into a more naturally scaled performance. Sadly, there is nothing strange, sinister, or supernatural in Barbara Meek’s Madame Arcati: it is too carefully crafted. She doesn’t bring with her the pungent smell of patchouli and potions, or an unexpected and comic professionalism; her performance is nice and distinctly unmodulated. As Charles, Fred Sullivan, Jr. is as dry as the martinis his character makes. He really does have a certain tongue-bitten humor down to a science. Cynthia Strickland works hard for her laughs as the batty, babblative Mrs. Bradman. Dressed like a frosted cupcake, she coos and fusses over Madame Arcati and saves her severity for her overmatched husband, who is very much a cipher in William Damkoehler’s hands.

I had hoped Curt Columbus would present something spry after Trinity’s turgid Richard III and the disappointing Some Things Are Private, and though the show is not terrible it is somehow uninspired. I can’t help thinking that, perhaps, this Spirit does not transcend the era in which it was written, even under the guidance of such an expert medium as Columbus.

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4.7.08--I want to revisit this last paragraph but I also want to keep the original version up as a testament to a kind of dishonesty. To wit, what on earth does "the show is not terrible [but] it is somehow uninspired" really mean? And is it the conclusion to which the review genuinely tends? The answers here are "nothing" and "no."

I used the word "uninspired" to describe the show because I couldn't resist the silly pun, spirit and inspire having in common the Latin root spirare, meaning to breathe. But it is not breath that this production is short of; indeed, as a respiratory (there's that root!) demonstration it's tremendously successful. What the show lacks is coherence: there's no real world around which the script or the characters congeal. Blithe Spirit has all the conviction and consequence of a sitcom, in which considerations of characters' integrity or dignity are secondary to the convenience of a good joke. The jokes are very clever and exceedingly well delivered, but they seem to come from nothing and disappear into nowhere. Or, to put it another way, they seem to be addressed by, and to, Mr. Noël Coward; there are no characters in the play, just vehicles designed for prompt and precise delivery. If Curt Columbus and the cast of Trinity Rep, for all of their energy and exhalation (expiration being a poor choice of words for the act of breathing out), can't quite animate the show, it's because there's no show there. It fulfills the first half of the escapist fantasy: we certainly leave our homes and our own problems for two hours; but it betrays the second: who can tell where we escaped to?

(Blithe Spirit is at Trinity Repertory Theater through April 27th.)


V. said...

The phrase played for laughs sometimes pops into my head. I remember this awful sitcom that lasted about four episodes (too long) starring Brian Dennehy as an old fire fighter whose two sons, both fire fighters, were living at home. The jokes were there and they were performed admirably enough but there was no gravitas to hold them up? I wish I could remember who it was but a pretty famous playwright said that comedy is tragedy plus time. And there is a lot of both of those in the play but they seem to be stuck on opposite sides of a large chasm from each other

Esther said...

Great review! I loved your "frosted cupcake" line. That was perfect. The acting was great, the sets and costumes and effects were wonderful. But I just found it a little draggy and tiresome in spots. Everyone else around me seemed to be laughing hysterically, but I just wanted things to get moving!