By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
D’you ever hear the phrase “Sic transit gloria mundi?” If you’re not sure what it means, here’s a loose translation “thus passeth the glory of the world.” If that doesn’t clear it up for you, a vivid example would be the mammoth, but ultimately fleeting, notoriety of British writer and performer Noël Coward.
If it’s true that Oscar Wilde was the progenitor of what we now call modern celebrity, then Coward is the crown prince. A writer of more than 40 full-length plays and one-acts, dozens of musicals and music revues, composer/lyricist of some of the most popular tunes of the day, director, night club headliner, movie star … and yet these days who’s even heard of him? If anything, people are probably more familiar with the term “Cowardesque” (a style of biting, smart and exceedingly dry comedy) than they are with Coward. In other words – sic transit gloria mundi.
Coward lives on today mainly through the longevity of his three most famous plays: Private Lives, Hay Fever and Blithe Spirit. There are dozens of others, some better and some (truth be told) worse, but those comprise the Coward Triptych; light comedies about incredibly funny people generally behaving in incredibly bitchy ways.
Blithe Spirit continues through November 2. Little Lake Theatre, Canonsburg. 724/745-6300. www.littlelaketheatre.org
Following it’s 1941 opening, Blithe Spirit, until The Mousetrap showed up, as the longest-running non-musical play in the world. And with the Little Lake Theatre’s production of this perennial favorite, here’s your opportunity to see what all the fuss has been about.
We open in the English countryside manse of novelist Charles Condomine and his lovely second wife Ruth. Charles has decided on the plot of his next book, a potboiler about a charlatan psychic, so he’s asked over a local mystic, the redoubtable Madame Arcati. He wants her to hold a séance so he can, on the sly, learn the fakery of the trade.
As it turns out Madame Arcati is not quite the humbug Charles expected; in fact she’s better than Charles wants because she brings back “from the other side” Elvira, Charles’ first wife who’s been dead these seven years.
Charles can see and hear Elvira, but Ruth cannot and this state of affairs leads to any number of comical difficulties and is, in fact, the core of the play. Stripped of it’s occult-style trappings, Blithe Spirit is really a drawing room comedy about the guest who wouldn’t leave.
Elvira’s doing what she can to drive a wedge into Charles’ marriage and, can it be, she seems to be plotting to kill him so he can spend eternity with her. Ruth, at the same time, is struggling to maintain her quintessential British hostess pose in even the face of relentless, if invisible, boorishness.
If, at any point, any of that seems spooky or sad then I’m definitely telling it wrong. Blithe Spirit is a lightweight, light hearted frothy little bubble and Coward’s only goal is to make you laugh.
And the same can be said for this rock-solid Little Lake production directed with an assured and seasoned hand by Rachel Pfennigwerth. Blithe Spirit doesn’t need to be “fixed,” the text doesn’t need to be “explored,” the content doesn’t need “contextualizing” – Blithe Spirit’s been around as long as it has because Coward did what he did better than just about anyone else and you only need to stage the piece without getting in its way … which Pfennigwerth and company have done beautifully here.
Eric Leslie, Stacey Rosleck and Rebecca MacTaggart shine with effervescence as Charles, Ruth and Elvira; thoroughly on point with a seemingly innate felicity of Cowardesque style, these three carry the evening from beginning to end with intelligence and polish.
Ina Block has the juicy role of Madame Arcati and relishes every comedic opportunity. Sydney Turnwald makes the most out of the fleeting role of Edith and Ricky Bryant and Aleta Richmond provide strong support in character roles.
It’s an entertaining evening and, by the end, you’re left thinking that maybe, like Elvira, it’s time to bring Coward back to the living.