By Noel Coward
Through Sept. 2
Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
36 Madison Ave., Madison
By GWEN OREL
At one point or another, nearly every character in “Blithe Spirit” says it: “Poor Ruth.”
Ruth feels put upon even before the ghost of her husband’s first wife, Elvira, turns up.
Noel Coward’s brittle 1941 comedy is a perfect summer entertainment, full of wit and surprise. If it’s a little light on humanity, that’s OK. Like any farce, the air would go out of it if we were to take it seriously. It’s an escape, a comedy of manners, with ghosts.
And Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey serves it up like a marshmallow chocolatey s’more. Delicious. Toasted just to a golden brown.
Novelist and socialite Charles Condomine (Brent Harris) holds a dinner party and séance, with visiting medium and local eccentric Madame Arcati (Tina Stafford), to get material for his latest book.
Ruth (Kate MacCluggage) feels sorry for herself because she may giggle. But a little before-dinner conversation, peppered with multiple dry martinis (how everyone in a Coward universe isn’t constantly plastered I’ll never know), shows that she harbors an unhealthy curiosity about her husband’s first wife.
The more she denies it, the surer we are.
Nothing seems to happen at the séance, at first. Madame Arcati plays the record “Always,” by Irving Berlin, to summon her “control,” a child named Daphne. There are multiple raps, and Arcati goes into a trance.
But Charles hears a voice. After everyone leaves, Elvira (Susan Maris) shows up: but only to him.
For awhile, Ruth thinks he’s crazy. The joke of Charles saying something to Elvira, and Ruth thinking he’s saying it to her is funny every time: “Shut up!” “That’s a thoroughly immoral suggestion!”
Elvira, you see, is a carefree, adorable, flirtatious, mischievous scamp — the total opposite of elegant, sensible Ruth.
Soon we’re in a weird ménage à trois.
Coward’s beloved comedy offers wonderful roles: the irresistible and infuriating flirt is a type he writes again and again. Maris has Elvira down pat. With her big eyes, the way she gestures with her ghostly dress, or pouts, she brings fun to every scene.
Because the role is a type it can be overlooked, but without Maris’ infectious sense of fun and scampy energy the play would not work: she is utterly convincing that she can beguile, as well as bedevil.
Stafford’s Arcati is wholly original. Arcati is usually an old lady, village eccentric with disconcerting schoolgirl field-hockey expressions such as “We must put our backs into it!” (Angela Lansbury played her in the 2008 Broadway revival). Stafford is younger, and more peppy than pompous; more a New Woman than Village Crank. Such a smart choice in a world where a speech about the benefits of cycling no longer screams “nut case.”
MacCluggage brings sophistication to the thankless role of sensible Ruth, while Harris’ Condomine perfectly speaks Coward’s absurd bits of eloquence, never taking a breath. “Surely even a protoplasmic manifestation has the right to expect a little of the milk of human kindness,” he snaps.
And Bethany Kay, as overeager maid Edith who clumsily gallops instead of walking, steals every scene she’s in.
Victoria Mack’s direction never flags; there’s nicely placed silly physical comedy mixed in with Coward’s wit at every turn. And it’s lovely to visit Charlie Calvert’s handsome set, in a world where people dress for dinner and wear elegant kimonos to breakfast. Hugh Hanson’s costumes evoke nostalgia for period movies, if not for a real place and time.
But who needs real? Not “Blithe Spirit.”
What a relief.