Theater Review:

Center Stage Production Gives Us Ginger Ale When We Ought To Get Champagne

Review by Howard Gradet
"Blithe Spirit" by Noel Coward,
directed by Tim Vasen,
at Center Stage (Pearlstone Theater)
through May 19. (Box office: 410-332-0033)

Two women share the same husband, but the lady in white is a ghost. Such is the plot of "Blithe Spirit."

Noel Coward is remembered most for his champagne-fizz situation comedies of manners, and is touted by many as a mid-20th century Oscar Wilde. His plays are always in season (there's a revival of one in New York this spring; Center Stage has done as much Coward as they have Albee, and the list goes on), and his best known is, hands down, "Blithe Spirit," in which a country gentleman novelist's first wife is brought back from the dead by the neighborhood medium, to the consternation of all, especially his second wife.

Everyone does this play; most everyone who goes to the theater often enough has seen it. And seen it. So the question that arises whenever a theater chooses to mount "Blithe Spirit," especially when it's a theater with the reputation of a Center Stage, has got to be, "Why?" To which there are two answers: "Because we have Julia Roberts and Emma Thompson as the two wives, and Maggie Smith's doing Madame Arcati," or "Because we have all the money in the world and want to throw some away on a trifle that we can't do well."

If you can't show us why Noel Coward is still revered, why do it? If you can't get at least one wonderful actress to lift the play above the merely passable, why do it?

And therein lies the problem. "Blithe Spirit" is not an easy play to make sparkle. It requires two star turns, and could use four, but can get by on two. The two star parts are the medium, Madame Arcati, and the ghost of the first wife, Elvira, and neither of them takes great acting as much as they do great personalities. When you have those, then the flaws in the play--excessive talkiness, a surprising lack of wit in the writing, and an inability to end where it should--can be overlooked, and you've got something worth your time. Without them, you've got ginger ale, not champagne. Center Stage, unfortunately, has only come up with one, maybe one and a half, and that ain't good enough, especially when the "one" isn't even in one of the two key roles.

Lynnda Ferguson (seen here in "Midsummer Night's Dream" and "The Misanthrope") is a charming Elvira, sexy and "morally untidy," a real good-time girl. She even makes the most of a costume that must be an actress's nightmare.

But Madame Arcati is a tougher part to get right, and requires a comedienne for whom oddness comes naturally. There's no required physical type: Margaret Rutherford and Beatrice Lilly couldn't have been more physically dissimilar if they had been from different species, but they were both off-center, and funnier than can be explained. There are actresses today, a few, who come to mind--Andrea Martin, the afore-mentioned Maggie Smith, Judi Dench because she can do anything, and some lesser-known but equally brilliant British women.

Unfortunately, Randy Danson, Center Stage's Madame Arcati, just can't do odd. She's an award-winning actress, but she's not inherently funny (neither was Geraldine Page, who did the part at the Mechanic and probably wished she hadn't), and although she tries hard, she only occasionally takes the part and the play where they need to go.

Lise Bruneau, on the other hand, is a wonderful Ruth, the put-upon second wife. It's a supposedly thankless role, but Bruneau makes this paper-thin character as sympathetic and real as anyone can. Ruth is the opposite of Elvira--sensible vs. sparkling, plain(ish) vs. beautiful; alive vs. dead. Bruneau moves well, wears the clothes and hair beautifully, and looks a lot like Wallis Simpson doing comic shtick.

David Adkins makes the most of Charles, the novelist around whom all these women swirl. It's the part Coward wrote for himself, and requires the actor to do all the things Coward could do well on stage, mostly standing around looking put out while holding a martini glass with panache. But, like Lise Bruneau, Adkins does blossom when director Tim Vasen gives him physical comedy to do (probably more than Coward ever did), and he keeps the British accent in check, most of the time.

Catherine Weidner is funny, though not funny enough, as the maid Edith. This is the part that unfortunately has become a Center Stage staple--the minor character who dances while moving props between scenes. Come on, guys, you've gone to the well way too many times with this one. Stop.
But we come back to the central question of "Why?" If you can't show us why Noel Coward is still revered, why do it? If you can't get at least one wonderful actress to lift the play above the merely passable, why do it?

Center Stage needs to reassess its position in the community, and leave the "Blithe Spirits" to lesser venues. An audience that thrives on the audacious works Center Stage can do so well and keeps coming back for more deserves better.

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This story was published on May 2, 2002.