Ghosts of things past. Way past.

I still smile at many of Noël Coward’s aphorisms (“I have a memory like an elephant. In fact, elephants often consult me.”) and find him an appealing literary-theatrical figure — witty, English, gay, elegant. But to sit for three hours and watch the fruit of his mental womb performed with faithful, correct — indeed, reverent —decorousness feels like enduring High Mass. Twice.

Blithe Spirit is a real problem for modern American actors, in particular. The play is British, very of its time, and terrifically exacting, where, without some innovation, each line or gesture leads to the next with the calcified-clever, leaden inevitability of that old “Mousetrap” board game. The dialogue is rapid-fire, the plot knowingly silly, and the characters are nowhere near realistic. Plus, you’ve got to have your British accent completely and absolutely water tight. It cannot seem like a hurdle, but it does here. With the exception of Wade Young as Charles, none of the performers really settle into the elocution comfortably. Unfortunately, this meant I spent three hours noting incorrect dipthongs and, the true mark of a troubled production, rooting for the cast to get it right rather than trusting they can manage it.

Plot summary: English country novelist Charles Condomine hires wacky medium Madame Arcati to perform séance as research for his new novel; séance inadvertently conjures up the spirit of his mischevious dead wife Elvira; dead wife hassles novelist and irritates the understandably vexed but somewhat prissy living wife Ruth, and hijinks etc. I’ll not spoil the ending for you.

None of the cast acts badly. Laurie Fitzpatrick as Madame Arcati is suitably kooky and over-accessorized, each wife (Belinda Harolds as Elvira, Christi Eanes as Ruth) chooses one or two character traits and sticks to them like glue, the neighbors (Allan Ross and Terri Peña Ross) are charming, and the maid (Saska Richards) works her ass off, especially at an accent that I think is supposed to be Irish.

Maybe Blithe Spirit would freshen up if you set a production in the present day … except there’s gramophones and songs and turns of phrase and social context that really wouldn’t allow for it. Or maybe if you mounted a knowingly, subversively outré version which addresses the play’s mightily repressed sexuality and ambivalence towards women and that somehow illustrates the semiotics — except that seems like a slog, too. Really, the only thing that might save it is an all-male cast.

If you’ve never seen nor read Blithe Spirit and, say, you’re a total freak for Gosford Park and Masterpiece Theatre and Murder on the Orient Express (the 1974 film, not so much A. Christie’s novel) and would love nothing more than to disappear into a cosseted and art-designed version of the late 1930s … you’d still be distracted by most of the cast’s not-quite-there accents. •

Blithe Spirit
8pm Thu-Sat, 3pm Sun
Through Oct 31
Sterling Houston Theater
Blue Star Arts Complex
1400 S Alamo
(210) 589-8450


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