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A CurtainUp NJ Review
Blithe Spirit
Anything interesting in the Times? — Charles
Don't be silly. — Ruth
blithe spirit
Tina Stafford (photo credit: Jerry Dalia)
Not sure if this trifle by Noel Coward written in less than a week during the 1941 London Blitz is still considered to be from the top drawer of one of the masters of sophisticated comedy. It certainly isn't revived as often as is Private Lives, Present Laughter or Design for Living . But there is enough to praise about the production now at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey to insure your commitment to its two and three quarter hour duration.

While sufficient talent has been gathered to permeate the ectoplasmic ether of this comic fantasy, I'm afraid I have to carp a bit about the overly mannered presentation that is mistakenly taken for style by the director and some of the performers. In fairness, I recognize the impulse to indulge a theatrical reality that was once perfectly acceptable.

This marks the directing debut at STNJ for the fine actress Victoria Mack, now celebrating her 10th season here. Aside from some quibbles I have regarding the staging and bits of business, she seems otherwise committed and with considerable success, to keeping the play's dense air of flippancy alive.

Pretty much absolved from the kind of affectations that are bound to make some audience members cringe is Brent Harris. He plays Charles Condomine, the mystery novelist who is suddenly confronted by the ghostly manifestation of Elvira his deceased wife. Harris, who is in his seventh season with STNJ and memorable for playing the titular role in last season's Tartuffe to loathsome perfection, exhibits the exactly the right amount congratulatory self-assurance of a man who can magnetize not only the living but the dead.

At its best, Blithe Spirit can blend what is purely fantastical with elements that can also be seen as whimsical and even fragile. The emphasis here is strictly on the fantastical. Somewhat problematic is the overly posy performing of the otherwise charming Susan Maris as the reappearing Elvira. Infiltrating the spirit of the former wife who takes particular delight in misinterpreting Charles's mental state, Maris hasn't quite yet channeled Elvira's reckless invasion into an amusing enough frolic.

Kate MacCluggage comes close to capturing the Cowardian style of haute sophistication and repartee without sounding smug as the anguished second wife. If any role gives an actor the right to be as eccentric as her temperament will allow then it is Madame Arcati, the determinedly sincere medium called in to materialize the seductive apparition. At first gussied up in Arabian haute couture and later in serious sporting attire, red-haired and wiry Tina Stafford is a constant delight. It is a pleasure to watch her resorting to all the shtick of her trade, although she does go a little overboard with the dancing when she goes into her trance. Just plain hilarious, however, is her delivery of lines such as "Are you all ready to empty your minds?" or "I smell ectoplasm...strongly."

The role of the incompetent maid who is either seen sprinting or tip-toeing about is broadly played by Bethany Kay. Rather perfect are Ames Adamson and Monette Magrath as the nonplussed house guests Dr. and Mrs. Bradman.

The constant bickering and squabbling may become tiresome, but not designer Hugh Hanson's period perfect costumes or designer Charlie Calvert's living room setting that temporarily arrests our gaze even before it is given a life of its own.

Just as its original long run diverted Londoners from the almost constant bombardment of aggression, so Americans today may welcome this diversion from our own national crisis. To quote from STNJ's Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte's program notes: "Coward, no stranger to destruction and loss, challenges us to find silliness and happiness in our lives, not in spite of the danger outside the door, but because of it."

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Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward
Directed by Victoria Mack
Cast; Kate MacCluggage (Ruth), Brent Harris (Charles), Susan Maris (Elvira), Tina Stafford (Madame Arcati), Ames Adamson (Dr. Bradman), Monette Magrath (Mrs. Bradman), Bethany Kay (Edith)
Scenic Design: Charlie Calvert
Costume Design: Hugh Hanson
Lighting Design: Michael Giannitti
Sound Design: Kari Berntson
Production Stage Manager: Alison Cote
Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes including intermission
Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison,N.J.
Performances: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Sundays at 7:30 pm; Thursdays,Fridays, Saturdays at 8 pm; Matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm.
From 08/15/18 Opened 08/18/18 Ends 09/02/18
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 08/18/18 NJ Theaters
NJ Theatre Alliance
Discount Tix Information

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