As long as there’s been theater, there have surely been comedies about ghosts come back to haunt the people on stage and amuse those in the audience who are watching their shenanigans.  Movies like the 1937’s Topper, which spawned not one but two TV series (and is scheduled for a 2010 Steve Martin remake) have continued the tradition on the big and small screen. When there’s only one character who can see the ghost(s) in question and the people around him/her suddenly find our hero(ine) talking to the air and see objects floating around the room, hilarity is sure to ensue.

Such is most definitely the case in 1941’s Blithe Spirit, Noël Coward’s “improbable farce in three acts,” now being revived at the Hermosa Beach Playhouse in a non-Equity production that comes close to any you might see at the Geffen or Pasadena Playhouse.

Charles Condomine (Don Fowler) and wife Ruth (Kimberly Patterson) have been happily married for five years, yet Ruth can’t seem to shake the thought that Charles hasn’t been able to forget his first wife Elvira, dead these seven years.  Since novelist Charles is doing research on a book he is planning about a homicidal spiritualist, who better to aid him in his research than local clairvoyant Madame Arcati (Sara Borgeson). A séance led by the eccentric psychic conjures up more than expected when Elvira (Meredith Rensa) suddenly reappears in the Condomines’ living room, quite a bit paler than she was in life but just as feisty as ever.  And because no ghost story would be nearly as fun if everyone could see the ghost, it is only Charles who can see and talk to his deceased wife.

Naturally, Ruth is none too happy about this uninvited visitor to her home, especially when Charles starts carrying on conversations with the walls. (It’s easy to imagine her irritation. Just think of those annoying people who walk down the street these days seemingly talking to themselves, until you spot the mini-cell phone attached to their ear.)

Fortunately, Ruth’s irritation means chuckles galore due to exchanges like the following:

Ruth: (to Charles) I want you to relax—you can’t relax standing up.
Elvira: (only Charles can hear her) African natives can—they can stand on one leg for hours.
Charles: I don’t happen to be an African native.
Ruth:  You don’t happen to be a what?
Charles: An African native!
Ruth:  What’s that got to do with it?

When Charles reluctantly informs Ruth that Elvira is back, the only way he can prove it to her is by asking Elvira to carry a bowl of flowers to the mantelpiece and back again.  Since we’ve watched this scene countless times in the movies and on TV, it’s easy for us to imagine the flowers floating in midair, as it appears to Ruth, and it is just as funny seeing this as Charles sees it—because we can imagine exactly what Ruth sees.

The keys to a successful Noël Coward production are a director with just the right light touch and a cast able to embody the sophisticated Coward characters and deliver their bons mots with just the right dry humor (and British accent), and the Hermosa Beach Playhouse has lucked out on both counts.

Director Stephanie A. Coltrin has proved her versatility in helming projects as epic as CLOSBC’s recent Miss Saigon and as “down home” as last season’s Come Back To The Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean.  Here she demonstrates equal ease with the witty patter of Coward, aided and abetted by a top-notch cast, particularly the pitch-perfect Fowler and Patterson.

As Charles and the 2nd Mrs. Condomine, the two leads have an impeccable ease with upper class British speech, to such an extent that it scarcely seems possible that they are not London born and bred. Once the accent is in place, an actor can focus on the performance, and here too Fowler and Patterson are about as terrific as it gets.  One could easily imagine them making a career of playing Coward married couples, beginning with Elyot and Amanda in Private Lives.

Rensa has loads of fun as the late Elvira, and crackles in scenes in which the two Mrs. Condomines battle for one-up(wo)manship with Charles. Borgeson is a younger Madame Arcati than the role is usually played (Margaret Rutherford, Mildred Natwick, Geraldine Page, and Beatrice Lilly are among those who have portrayed the clairvoyant) but gives a dynamo of a performance, just over-the-top enough to be eccentric while never becoming caricature. Darrell Philip and Suzanne Dean lend fine support as the Condomines’ good friends Dr. and Mrs. Bradman, and Suzanne Petrela gets more laughs than just about anyone else as the over-eager, bumbling maid Edith. Just to see her awkward curtseys, deliberately slowed-down walk, and earnest efforts to mimic Ruth’s sophisticated gestures is almost worth the price of admission.

No large non-Equity theater can match the Hermosa Beach Playhouse in terms of production values and design.  Christopher Beyries, who recently designed the marvelously mobile sets for Bye Bye Birdie, does fine work with a single set here, the Condomines’ elegantly-appointed Kent living room.  Even better is his lighting design.  Not only does the lighting indicate the various times of day in which the play takes place, but Beyries also gets to create various effects, including spookily soft light for the séance, and a wild explosion of colors for the play’s grand finale. Karen L. Cornejo and Christa Armendariz’s costumes are particularly fine, early-40s wide-shouldered dresses for Ruth, a Lily Munster-like gown for Elivra, and some spectacular 20s outfits for the nostalgically garbed Madame Arcati.  Special attention has been paid to feathered hats and beaded handbags, and it shows. Erik Bleuer’s sound design amplifies the actors’ voices without overly miking them, and provides just the right echo for Elvira’s ghostly voice.

The Hermosa Beach Playhouse production of Blithe Spirit combines the wit and sophistication of Noël Coward’s Private Lives with more than a bit of the supernatural to provide a delightfully other-worldly evening of theater, just the right prelude to the upcoming Halloween festivities.

Hermosa Beach Playhouse, 170 Pier Avenue, Pacific Coast Highway, Hermosa Beach.

–Steven Stanley
October 21, 2008
Photos: Alysa Brennan

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