by Malcolm Gay
"It's discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit," quips Charles Condomine, the arch novelist at the heart of Blithe Spirit, Noël Coward's sparkling comedy of séances, spouses and spectral bigamy now being presented by the St. Louis Actors' Studio.
Not that Charles is in the habit of shocking people. As a writer at work on a thriller that features a murderous psychic, he's all soigné charm and dapper wit — the sort of chap who'd rather gloss over life's uncertainties with a well-turned phrase than spoil a fine cocktail with frank talk about, say, the limitations of marriage. So it is that when his current wife, the prim and plain Ruth, asks Charles to compare her to his deceased first wife, Elvira, the novelist adroitly deflects the question with another round of dry martinis.
But some things just won't stay put.
Looking to pick up some lingo for his next book, Charles has cynically invited the eccentric medium, Madame Arcati, to hold a seance at their house. But while the couple had expected a character study in fraudulence, Madame Arcati isn't the charlatan they'd expected. Tables rattle. Doors knock, and when Elvira's ghost takes up residence with an eye toward reclaiming her husband to the afterlife, not even the novelist's quicksilver wit can mend the marital fault lines that emerge, as his wives, first warring, eventually conspire against him.
Written in a breathtaking six days, Blithe Spirit proved to be one of Coward's greatest successes — a witty articulation of the playwright's uncertainties about commitment and the artist's urge to free himself of emotional entanglements. Of course, Coward laced these weightier issues almost imperceptibly through his frothy 1941 comedy of self-serving narcissists — both living and dead — delivering his "improbable farce" that trips lightly upon mortality.
Timing is crucial for a play like Blithe Spirit to shimmer, and under Bobby Miller's skillful direction, the Actors' Studio cast ably channels the period piece's fluid charms. Michael James Reed anchors the show as Charles. A gifted actor of great range, Reed is at his best while having simultaneous (if confused) conversations with both his living wife Ruth, who initially thinks he's being rude, and the ghostly Elvira, whom no one but Charles can see as she flits about the room, scheming to bring him back with her.
Costume designer Michele Friedman Siler has attired the actors in handsome period dress, with Charles padding about in velvet smoking jackets and ascots, while the women are sheathed in glittering gowns and draped with mink stoles. Lee Anne Mathews brings terrific nuance to the part of Ruth, the seemingly game spouse whose native rigidity becomes apparent when her more sensuous predecessor threatens her position. For her part, Nancy Bell is electrifying as Elvira. Both earthy and ephemeral, she's hilarious in her send-up of ghostly stereotypes, hoisting bouquets through air to the squealing delight of Madame Arcati.
Sporting the gold turban of a carnival fortune teller, Nancy Lewis plays Madame Arcati for laughs. Appearing at first to possess some sort of occult knowledge, Lewis eventually shows the medium not to be not so much an imposter as a self-involved buffoon, clown-walking about the stage and shimmying at the thought of ectoplasm. It's funny, and Lewis' performance is generally sound, but playing Madame Arcati as such a caricature, the performance loses some of its specificity.
Steve Isom, Andra Harkins and Jennifer Theby-Quinn round out the cast. Meanwhile, Patrick Huber's serviceable set conveys a sense of comfortable affluence on the theater's small stage, although the modern mission-style couch is a distracting anachronism.
Most impressive, though, are the show's pyrotechnics in the final scene. As Charles' marriages collapse in a fit of invective, Mark Wilson's special effects transform the set, making for the sort of combustible live theater rarely seen on such a diminutive stage.
No, Blithe Spirit may not have the flash of Transformers, but in so unlikely a play and held in such a small space, the effects create, as Madame Arcati might have it, a full-blooded "materialization."
Blithe Spirit Through December 21 at the Gaslight Theater, 358 N. Boyle Avenue. Call 314-458-2978 or click here.