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A CurtainUp Review
Blithe Spirit

By Barbara Mehlman

If an air raid warning be received during the performance the audience will be informed from the stage . . . those desiring to leave the theatre may do so but the performance will continue
---Program note in the original British playbill of Blithe Spirit
Scriptwriters love ghosts. They're a wonderful mechanism for creating moods, controlling behavior, and manipulating action. Americans have made great use of ghosts in such riotous films as Ghostbusters and Sister Act, and the witty sitcom of the 1950s, Topper. But the British seem to do ghost stuff better than anyone. Think of memorable ghosts and first to come to mind are Hamlet's father, Macbeth's nemesis, Banquo, and Dickens' Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future.

These airy specters work well in all sorts of situations, adding either trepidation or froth according to the intent of the writer. So when Noel Coward wanted to have some fun, he decided upon a ghost story. Blithe Spirit was written in six days during the Blitz of 1941, just weeks after German bombs had destroyed his office and attached apartment. Coward said he wanted to write a "very gay, superficial" comedy, and this he did to a fine turn.

Blithe Spirit, a feather-light fantasy that will tickle everyone's fancy, is currently running at Theatre 80 on St. Marks Place in the East Village, produced by that little gem of an acting troupe, The Pearl Theatre Company. Though the Company operates on a shoestring, in an old, fraying theatre that was once a movie revival house, it still manages to attract top acting talent, and the result is an uproariously funny farce played to perfection by an outstanding cast.

As the story opens, we meet Ruth and Charles Condomine (Joanne Camp and Doug Stender), an attractive, middle-aged couple in a contented but unsmoldering second marriage, preparing to greet their guests. Charles is a writer doing research for a book he's writing on the occult, and has invited, in addition to friends, a well-known medium to hold a sťance. His goal is to expose the woman as a fraud, and denounce her so-called supernatural gifts as nothing more than hocus-pocus.

Well, Madame Arcati (Delphi Harrington) arrives, does her mumbo-jumbo-rhubarb-rhubarb, and to Charles' utter astonishment, his gorgeous first wife, Elvira (Hope Chernov) pays him a visit from the "other side." Visible and audible only to Charles, she provokes him into quarreling with her. When he answers her back in anger, Ruth thinks he's talking to her. Coward's clever dialogue is written so that his answers to Elvira make sense as replies to Ruth's comments.

Ruth is obviously upset, and thinks her husband a bit mad. But when it's proven to her that Elvira is indeed present, the two try to exorcise her. Elvira, however, has no intentions of leaving without her former husband. She wants him with her for all eternity and has set about fixing things to cause Charles' demise. Her best laid plans "gang aft aglay " and Charles ends up with two ghostly wives to make his life ghastly. Poor Charles.

Joanne Camp is excellent as the sensible and sturdy Ruth, and Hope Chernov, in a pink satin peignoir set, is a smashing ghost—- literally. Delphi Harrington completes the trio of women, giving us a very dramatic Madame Arcati who's a perfect sendup of all those who purport to have supernatural powers.

But a large part of what makes this production so successful is how well-spoken all the actors are. Their British accents are accurate, their diction precise and their voices commanding. Would that all actors could speak so well. I lament the number of times I've had to do a "what did he say?" because an actor mumbled and his voice didn't project.

Coward has such a good time making mischief with marriage and mediums (if you have more than one medium, are they media?) and director Stephen Hollis does nothing to interfere with the fun. His light touch has given the actors freedom to spirit themselves around the Pearl's small stage and create a delicious souffle of a play.

By Noel Coward
Directed by Stephen Hollis
With Joanne Camp as Ruth; Doug Stender as Charles; Hope Chernov as Elvira; Delphi Harrington as Madame Arcati; Dominic Cuskern as Dr. Bradman; Glynis Bell as Mrs. Bradman; Elizabeth Ureneck as Edith.
At Theatre 80, 80 St. Marks Place. Performances: Tuesday at 7PM, Thursday to Saturday at 8PM; matinees Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2PM. No performance September 29 at 8PM, or September 30 at 2PM. Tickets: $28-$35. Student rush seats at $10 available one hour before performance at box office. Call 212-598-9802.
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes with 2 intermissions
8/31/2000-9/30/2000; opening 9/11/2000
Extended to 10/22-- a first for the Pearl!
Reviewed by Barbara K. Mehlman based on September 8, 2000 preview performance

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