On Theater: 'Blithe Spirit' at Costa Mesa Playhouse

By Tom Titus for Daily Pilot

When he was a child, Noel Coward's mother took him to a succession of mediums and psychics, an experience he used to create one of his most enduring stage comedies.

"Blithe Spirit" — which Coward reportedly took five days to create — is celebrating its 70th anniversary, and it's still entertaining audiences worldwide.

This weekend, and Sept. 23 to 25, it's raising the spirits at the Costa Mesa Playhouse in an attractive and enjoyable production.

Director David A. Blair's enthusiastic cast captures the flavor of the play's 1940s-era characters, although a bit of tightening still is required to repair some uncomfortable gaps due more to tempo than interpretation.

The comedy centers on an English novelist whose first wife died seven years before, and who's now quite content with his second. A visit by a psychic medium, however, conjures up the spirit of the mischievous dead spouse — which only he can see or communicate with.

Paul Griffiths takes on the role of the writer with wit and gusto in a pleasing, though occasionally uneven, performance. His best moments come while trying to speak to the ghost while his current wife is present, leading to some quite hilarious confrontations.

As the second spouse, outraged at the "appearance" of her predecessor, Jennifer Pearce presents a solid picture of English reserve driven to the extreme. Her speaking volume, however, or the absence of it, often makes it difficult to hear what she is saying.

Emily Price beautifully enacts the role of ethereal Elvira, summoned from the Great Beyond. She succinctly captures her character's coquettish charm and revels in her ability to confound both her ex and his wife. This is a showcase role, and Price makes the most of it in a deliciously comic performance.

Judy Jones richly portrays the doddering medium, Madame Arcati. Jones appears to cover fluffed lines with her character's eccentricities. The more seasoned playgoer might draw a comparison to comics of another era such as Marion Lorne or Dody Goodman.

Dan Henry and Norma Jean play the writer's guests, a doctor and his wife, the latter injecting hilarious traits (such as a raucous horse laugh) into her straightly written character. Henry's performance could do with a bit of fine tuning.

The cherry atop this spiritual sundae is Danielle MacInnis as the couple's full-speed-ahead maid, who ultimately provides the ticket for a ghostly return trip. MacInnis' awkward characterization draws a laugh on virtually every entrance and exit.

Director Blair has designed the attractive period setting (the time frame isn't given, but the 78-rpm records and ladies' hairstyles strongly suggest the 1940s). Ryan Holihan's striking costumes and Travis Hunter's lighting design also bolster the play's atmosphere.

Few plays manage to fully charm audiences seven decades after their creation, but Coward's "Blithe Spirit" certainly ranks among them. It's an attractive, if not completely immaculate, revival at the Costa Mesa Playhouse.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go
What: "Blithe Spirit" by Noel Coward
Where: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 611 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and at 2 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 25
Cost: $16 - $18
Call: (949) 650-5269

©2011 Costa Mesa Playhouse