As they toss back a few early evening martinis, middle-aged Brits Charles and Ruth (Mark Honan and Deborah Paley) congratulate their marriage — the second for both — as being oh so charming and reasonable. They discuss their romantic pasts like grown-ups, without jealousy, and Ruth could really, honestly care less about whether Charles’s first wife was more attractive than her. What a difference a séance makes! In a great metaphysical feat by medium Madame Arcati (Michele Livermore Wigton) later that evening, a spirit is manifested who is visible only to Charles. Its presence effectively makes him into, as Ruth puts it, “a sort of astral bigamist.” The subsequent domestic crises are the basis of Noël Coward’s droll Blithe Spirit, smartly directed for The Theater Project by Christopher Price.
“Fascinating,” “maddening,” “bad at games,” and “morally untidy” are a few of the adjectives Charles uses to nostalgically describe his dead first wife Elvira, before she materializes, and several less rhapsodic ones get thrown around after she shows up. When it becomes clear to Ruth that Elvira has more in mind than a quick tea, and that Charles is actually none too displeased by her presence, the household’s arch British amiability gets quite a jolt.
Charles and Ruth live in a drawing-room heaven of dry and elegant affluence, invitingly designed by JP Gagnon in cozy rust-reds, with touches of deep green and all the trappings of British refinement: glowing hearth, Oriental carpet, quietly plush Victorian furnishings, and the stylish accouterments of a proper bar (including a divine green icebox that continues to haunt me as of this writing). The gentleman and lady of the house, as well as their séance guests, Dr. and Mrs. Bradford (Marc Brann and Lisa Muller-Jones) are always impeccably dressed to match (by the expert hand of costumer Wendy Poole) — for the séance, Charles and Ruth appear in rich burgundies, the Branfords in shades of black, gold, and bone.
The uptight sumptuousness of setting and garments beautifully enhances the personalities. Honan and Paley are spot-on in their initial poised and nimble banter, but it’s even more fun to watch them crack as things get weird and infuriating. Paley’s Ruth hangs onto that doggedly mannered smile for quite a while after her actual language has regressed to clipped insults and well-phrased nastiness, and Honan plays delightfully between jocularity, outrage, and exhausted cynicism. Both Paley and Honan enjoy the luxury of wide character (d)evolutions, and it is an impish pleasure to watch their stubborn British civility get shed and thrashed. By the end of Act Two, no remnants of romance or decorum remain unshredded.
Unlike them, Madame Arcati manages to more or less maintain her dignity and her hearty joie de vivre. In Livermore Wigton’s hands, the medium is a vigorous comic force, buoyant and unabashed as she thrashes on the floor like the Nirvana fish and performs isometrics with gladiolas.