When Ghosts Attack

Live Theatre Workshop does well with the insubstantial yet amusing 'Blithe Spirit'

When Arizona Theatre Company produced Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit in 1997, even a psychic would have sensed a vast emptiness on the stage. Coward's little farce evaporated and floated away, the actors dwarfed by the set, the script seeming to be annoyingly insubstantial. Blithe Spirit works far, far better in the tight confines of Live Theatre Workshop, where it opened last weekend and still proves to be insubstantial, but now amusingly so.

In a midcentury English country home, cynical writer Charles Condomine hopes to pick up some tips for his next novel, about a murderous medium, by inviting the fruity local psychic, Madame Arcati, over for a harmless little séance. Charles and his wife, Ruth, anticipate a bit of diverting fakery, but something goes wrong, and in floats a manifestation of Charles' late first wife, Elvira. Only Charles can see and hear Elvira, which leads to some misunderstandings with Ruth, and marital problems ensue, now that Charles turns out to be a sort of "astral bigamist."

In its odd balance of sex farce and English comedy of manners ("Anything interesting in the Times?" "Don't be silly"), Blithe Spirit needs a light touch and quick but not madcap pace. Those virtues are certainly to be found in the Live Theatre Workshop production, directed by Cliff Madison.

Jonathan Northover has the perfect crisp delivery for Charles, remaining suave even at his most flustered. Molly Holleran is quite effective as the straight-laced Ruth, only slightly shrill in her high-strung indignation. Nicole Stein as the spectral Elvira is by turns petulant and playfully seductive, quite slinky in her satiny white gown and gloves.

Chuck Rankin and Barbara Armstrong provide wry, properly low-key support as friends of the family, and Jodi Rankin is a scene-stealer, as Coward intended, as Madame Arcati. She initially seems to be channeling Emma Thompson as the psychic wizard-professor in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but settles into a more individual portrayal as the play moves forward--dotty, but not too gross a caricature.

In the end, the supercilious Charles abandons his furiously haunted home, with lights flickering, portraits spinning and knicknacks crashing around him. (Madison's set design is more solid and detailed than the LTW norm, and it's a good thing.) Coward wrote Blithe Spirit during the London Blitz of 1941, shortly after his own office and apartment had been bombed into the ectoplasmic beyond. It's difficult not to sense a bit of that very real barrage in the play's final minute, but until that point, Coward had been striving to produce nothing more than two hours of escapist entertainment, something defiantly frothy in the face of attack. The result may be trivial, but at Live Theatre Workshop, it's certainly enjoyable.