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Theater Review

Elvira, the Mischievous Ghost, Sparkles in This 'Blithe Spirit'

November 14, 2000|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

A supernatural, quicksilver version of Carole Lombard, this is one ghost who can haunt the Greater Los Angeles area all she likes. Audiences will be the happier for it.

The ghost--well, technically, the actress playing the ghost--is Kaitlin Hopkins, and at present she is proving herself an excellent Elvira, the "morally untidy" shade of novelist Charles Condomine's first wife, in the Pasadena Playhouse revival of Noel Coward's endlessly revisited "Blithe Spirit."

It's not a memorable production. Yet Hopkins has unusually good instincts when it comes to high comedy, proven recently in Shaw's "The Philanderer" (at South Coast Repertory) and in the Playhouse production of Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest." And for once in the ever-proliferating stage history of "Blithe Spirit," Elvira gets some strong comic competition from Condomine's second, more sensible, far duller wife, Ruth, played wonderfully by Sara Botsford.

These two performances are so right, you wish the Playhouse were doing Coward's "Fallen Angels" instead--something to really show them off. But it's familiar old "Blithe Spirit," which never was as blithe (by Coward's high standards, despite its huge popular success) as much as padded and heavyish.

In between the wives? A pretty good Charles Condomine from Francois Giroday. He is a technically skilled performer--dialect, crisp, rolled Rs by the dozen; the funniest physical bits, nice and precise.

Yet he could profit from the author's observation of an early 1920s performance Coward himself contributed to one of his own pieces. He was, as he wrote later, "forcing points too much and giving knowing grimaces when delivering comedy lines. I had not learned then not to superimpose upon witty dialogue the too-heavy burden of personal mannerisms." Certain lines in "Blithe Spirit" require the comic equivalent of the cold shoulder--just an uninflected pinnnngggg, rather than a lot of fuss.

A seance conducted by Madame Arcati, the dottiest woman in Kent, brings from the next world the ghost of Elvira. Condomine becomes an "astral bigamist." He must work out for himself a new design for living, suitable to himself, "poor Ruth" and Elvira.

Its premise is sure-fire, though the play tends to encourage a kind of overexertion in performance. Coward wrote it in about a week in 1941. It came for him at a time of personal debts (solved by the play, at least for a while) and a time of national crisis. Opening night in London, Coward wrote, the audience "had to walk across planks laid over the rubble caused by a recent air raid to see a light comedy about death."

I side with the late Sir John Gielgud on this play, its title swiped from Shelley ("Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!" from "To a Skylark"). Gielgud thought it "terribly overwritten." Condomine, "hag-ridden" all his life, in the end leaves behind a haunted house he finds tiresome and shrewish.

Director Douglas C. Wager adjusts that ending. Former artistic director of the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., Wager knows his comedy. Even with a miscast Shirley Knight (Hopkins' talented mother) as Arcati--all night she's fighting her own Grand Tour multiethnic dialect--he delivers a respectable, quite stylish production.

The new coda, however, rewrites the fate of Condomine and not really for the better (it's just more moralistic). Partly it's a design issue: Not enough stuff flies around in the famous climax, wherein the dead wives' club wreaks havoc onstage, invisibly. Scenic designer Roy Christopher's living room imparts a queasy, forced-perspective feeling on the audience straight off. The walls seem to be falling away from us. But when things are supposed to really go nuts, bric-a-brac tumbling off the shelves, it's just not enough.

The production is worth seeing for Hopkins and Botsford, whose chops have nothing to do with special effects.

* "Blithe Spirit," Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Drive, Pasadena. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 and 9 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Also: 8 p.m. Nov. 27. No performance Nov. 23. Ends Dec. 17. $15-$42.50. (800) 233-3123. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.

Megan Cavanagh: Edith

Sara Botsford: Ruth Condomine

Francois Giroday: Charles Condomine

Charles Lanyer: Dr. Bradman

Carol Mansell: Mrs. Bradman

Shirley Knight: Madame Arcati

Kaitlin Hopkins: Elvira

Written by Noel Coward. Directed by Douglas C. Wager. Scenic design by Roy Christopher. Costumes by Jean-Pierre Dorleac. Lighting by D Martyn Bookwalter. Sound by Francois Bergeron and Martin Carrillo. Production stage manager Heidi Swartz.

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