Theater review: Four County Players resurrects Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit

Chris Baumer and Tiffany Smith star as novelist Charles Condomine and his deceased first wife, Elvira, in Blithe Spirit. Photo by Linda Hogan Chris Baumer and Tiffany Smith star as novelist Charles Condomine and his deceased first wife, Elvira, in Blithe Spirit. Photo by Linda Hogan

Is there any comedy trope that’s been kicked around more often than the bickering husband and wife at home? Domestic discord has been a go-to gag for centuries and the cornerstone of TV sitcoms for a reason. We all know the excruciating grief of slogging through a never-ending argument with our significant other, but whether it’s PTSD empathy or black-hearted schadenfreude, we love to listen to zingers coming at the expense of a couple of fictional suckers who can’t get on the same page. Luckily for the audience at Four County Players, it’s exactly that kind of oh-that’s-rich, bitter tit for tat that makes Blithe Spirit a fruitful extended exercise in comic contention.

British playwright Noël Coward was well aware of how comedy can be born from conflict. That is to say, he was astute enough in his conception to realize that if a lady and gentleman are tearing each other down to the subatomic level with sharp repartee—and it gets laughs—then it stands to reason that throwing an ex into a heated squabble should theoretically be that much funnier. It is. Just like a husband and wife locking horns, going bigger is an old idea, too. Even in the time of his early comedies, Shakespeare figured out that if one set of bumbling identical twins is amusing, two pairs of identical twins are hysterical. Sometimes more is, truly, substantially more, and Coward expands on the traditional blueprint with sidesplitting results.

Blithe Spirit
Runs through May 21
Four County Players

Written in 1941 during the height of the London Blitz, Coward’s wartime black comedy serves up caustic, hilarious one-liners that burn exasperated husband Charles Condomine and his second wife, Ruth, right where they stand—in the stuffy confines of their English country house with dry martinis in hand. Though there’s nary a passing mention of World War II, the timeless premise of farcical matrimonial anguish remains anything but textbook, thanks to the surprisingly funny consequences of hashing out relationship issues in the unexpected and interfering shadow of death; there’s also a thoroughly hefty comic bounty wrangled from decrying what sounds like the bureaucratic miseries of the afterlife. I’ll explain.

Apparently, Coward’s initial idea was to simply write a play about disagreeable ghosts, but Blithe Spirit ultimately used an apparition to reveal just how difficult it is for marriages to stay happy.

The story pits novelist Charles in the most bizarre of love triangles when he invites Madame Arcati (Kate Monaghan) to hold a séance. While his sly motive is to note her methods as research for his next book, the spiritualist act quickly gets out of hand. The quiet mockery of the medium produces the ghost of Charles’s deceased first wife, Elvira, who appears in the Condomines’ living room. Madame Arcati, Ruth and guests Dr. Bradman (Charif Soubra) and Mrs. Bradman (Barbara Roberts) are blind and deaf to Elvira; Charles is unnerved to find that he isn’t. Quite suddenly, he’s haunted and harangued by two very unsatisfied women with strong personalities. And, as the cliché goes, hilarity ensues.

Entertaining as Blithe Spirit is, make no mistake: This is a comedy almost entirely predicated on the strength of its dialogue. There’s precious little in the way of silence, mimicry or physical comedy, barring the brief bits involving the nervous stammering of servant Edith, portrayed in a timely, frantic awkwardness by Linda Zuby. Other memorable moments free to please without Coward’s words derive from the bloodcurdling screams of flummoxed Ruth, played with precision by Claire McGurk Chandler.

Chandler handles her considerable quantity of intricate insults and outrage with the accuracy and bombast appropriate of a well-trained opera singer. In her wide-eyed indignant scowls and stares lurk the stylistic touches of Amy Poehler, but her delivery also reveals a delightfully bottled restraint that continually gives way to a stunned reaction reminiscent of Margaret Dumont, the haughty straight woman of many Marx Brothers’ movies. Perhaps more startling than Chandler’s uncanny ability to speak her lines with such hardened grace is the flawless accent that pops out of her. Indeed, her believably formal manner of speaking never wavered throughout the show; it sailed effortlessly beyond the cynicism of this recent New York City transplant, who wouldn’t have guessed that I might hear put-on snobbery reverberating so convincingly from the rafters of a community stage tucked behind the Barboursville post office off of Route 33.

Credit is due to dialect coach Carol Pedersen, who did an impressive job with the entire cast. They admirably clung to their proper English voices while navigating roller coaster-like lines designed to jut out, cut back and thrust between each other in alternating freefalls. Director Miller Murray Susen rightfully calls the language “beautifully complex,” and certainly, Chris Baumer made sure that it came across that way in his sturdy portrayal of Charles.

Complicating things in the best and most irritating ways, the cloying and petulant Elvira, embodied by Tiffany Smith, offered a respectably impertinent counterpoint to Chandler’s just-so Ruth. The visitor from beyond the grave attempts to reclaim her former home at every turn: languidly rolling on the sofa, whirling gleefully around the gramophone and—to the audience’s joy—giving everyone hell.

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