This season, the Guthrie Theater is reviving underappreciated classics (Watch on the Rhine), spotlighting important new plays (Familiar), and finding fresh approaches to familiar stories (Romeo and Juliet). Oh, and it's also doing Blithe Spirit.
Noël Coward's 1941 comedy has long been a theatrical staple, and if a lot of millennials have nonetheless missed it, a glance at Tuesday night's audience suggested they're not leaping at this opportunity to remedy that omission.
Blithe Spirit does make a weirdly fitting companion piece for A Christmas Carol. It's hard to believe the Guthrie's expansive facility was built so that we could simultaneously have the silvery-faced ghosts of young women scolding rich assholes in house shoes on both the Wurtele Thrust and McGuire Proscenium stages, but here we are.
The play begins with a séance at the very comfortable home of Charles (Quinn Mattfeld) and Ruth (Heidi Armbruster), who invite their friends the Bradmans (Bob Davis and Amy Warner) over for the occasion. WWII may be raging, but nobody's watching the Rhine: All eyes are on Madame Arcati (Sally Wingert), the local psychic who approaches her work with utmost seriousness. Charles, in fact, is a writer who's just gathering material.
To the novelist's shock, the stunt actually works. His first wife Elvira (Elia Monte-Brown) appears to him and him alone, surprisingly vivacious given that she's been dead for seven years. Ruth is still a little jealous of her predeceased predecessor, and the specter doesn’t help the situation. Can Madame Arcati reverse the curse?
Do you care? Truth be told, Blithe Spirit is a tough play to make a case for in 2017. It's the kind of show where wealthy married couples are constantly screaming at each other. The mischievous (and sort of single) Elvira is the only person who ever seems to be having much fun in this play, but even that amiable interval soon ends.
Charles berates the invisible Elvira, and his current wife assumes he's talking to her. As Ruth learns the truth, she becomes confused, then indignant, as Charles gets rudely defensive. It's a sour spectacle, and much of the would-be humor turns on assumptions about marriage that are, thankfully, no longer current.
It need hardly be said that the wonderful Wingert relishes the plum role of Arcati, a seer who combines mystical pretensions with down-to-earth deadpans. The zesty Monte-Brown also brings a welcome life (ironically) to the proceedings, but Mattfeld and Armbruster drag things right back down. Director David Ivers goes neither quick and subtle nor broad and comic, which doesn't give us much reason to invest 150 minutes tracking these drippy Brits' marital woes.
Even the technical side of this production is clunky -- literally. Over the course of the play multiple vases and at one point a whole tray of dishes hit the floor, everything landing with a thump instead of a smash. It's as hard to be concerned about the décor of this well-appointed home as it is to give a damn about its inhabitants.