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AMERICAN ’SPIRIT’

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Ever since Lewis Hallan brought a company of actors to the colonies in 1752, American theater has been hugely indebted to English writers, managers and actors. Even today, decades after American theater came into its own, Broadway and off-Broadway rely heavily on English imports. Many British plays fit nicely into American culture and iconography. Others do not make the crossing quite as well.

Noel Coward’s "Blithe Spirit" premiered in 1941 at Manchester’s Opera House and then played at the Piccadilly Theatre in London. The play later came to New York’s Morosco Theatre where it featured such well-known performers as Clifton Webb and Peggy Wood. And in 1945, the British film company Cineguild turned the play into a film with Rex Harrison and Margaret Rutherford, who reprised her original role as the medium, Madame Arcati.

Coward called his play - about an author who wants to write a novel about a medium, invites one to his home to conduct a seance and ends up with his deceased wife setting up residence - "an improbable farce in three acts." And some have called the movie a fantasy. But, at heart, "Blithe Spirit" is nothing more or less than an English drawing-room comedy.

The Heights Players’ production of "Blithe Spirit," playing through Nov. 23 in Brooklyn Heights, has much to recommend it.

Laurie Muir, who has not been seen at the Heights Players since 1986’s "The Man Who Came to Dinner," is back and steals the show with her very funny portrayal of Madame Arcati, the flamboyant but inept medium. Judith Meehan (the title role in "Laura," Doris Walker in "Miracle on 34th Street," The Wicked Witch in "The Wizard of Oz") is seductive and deliciously malicious parading about as the dead wife, Elvira, in her slinky white dress and white makeup. And Dana Kelly is excellent in the supporting role of Edith, the maid; this reviewer would like to see her considerable comic talent put to greater use in the future.

But the production does have its problems.

"Blithe Spirit" is a three-act, dialogue-heavy comedy that depends to a great extent on a familiarity with British decorum, British class-consciousness and British wit. None of this, however, is insurmountable - if "Blithe Spirit" is presented as a British play.

Unfortunately, director John Bourne has dispensed with the British accents and allowed the actors (except, happily, for Muir) to speak with an American (alas, sometimes even Brooklyn or New York) pronunciation. This makes much of the dialogue sound stiff and unnatural rather than quick and sophisticated. Without a British upper-crust accent to pull the audience through the overabundance of dialogue, Bourne would have done better to cut the play down to its very funny essentials.

Charles (Charles Hampton) is an author and a cad, but apparently also rather attractive to women. His deceased first-wife wants him back, his second-wife, Ruth (Krista Gillen), doesn’t want to give him up, and Madame Arcati doesn’t know what to do about it.

Dr. Bradman (Tom Levy) and Mrs. Bradman (Maureen Vidal) are guests who come to Charles and Ruth’s house to be part of the seance, and other than making an occasional observation, the under-developed characters seem to have no more function in the play than to give Charles and Ruth someone to speak to besides each other.

Much of the play’s humor comes from Charles’ attempts to balance the demands of both his living and dead wives and the hide-and-seek game of seeing but not being seen. And of course, let’s not forget Coward’s lethal assault on marriage, fidelity, domesticity and convention.

"Blithe Spirit" has some very clever visual effects and a sumptuous set designed by Bill Wood. The acting ranges from praiseworthy to adequate. And, oh yes, at times it’s really very funny.

 

Heights Players presents "Blithe Spirit" through Nov. 23, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets are $12, $10 seniors and students. The Heights Players is located at 26 Willow Place at State Street in Brooklyn Heights. For reservations, call (718) 237-2752.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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