Blithe Spirit

blitheBy Philip Pearce

BLITHE SPIRIT, the Noel Coward play about ghosts now being offered in Monterey by The Listening Place, is a tough choice for readers’ theater.

A British novelist named Charles Condomine needs some first-hand spooky background for his newest book about a phony medium. So he gathers his second wife Ruth and two willing neighbors for a séance conducted by a local eccentric named Madame Arcati. The séance materializes Condomine’s late wife Elvira, who proceeds to haunt the premises and turn the household on its head.

It’s Coward’s funniest and most carefully plotted comedy, but it depends more than anything else he wrote on a lot of physical and technical magic: ghosts appear and vanish and we need to keep straight who can and who can’t see and hear them.

An able Listening Place cast does well by the material, with the help of Coward’s crisp dialogue, some ghostly white veils and spooky sound effects.

Richard Boynton plays the bewitched widower with verve and mounting anguish. As Ruth, his second wife, Susan Keenan’s British drawing-room poise and assurance crack and crash as she gradually admits Charles hasn’t lost his mind, while the unwelcome Elvira, played with enormous petulant charm by Maryann Rousseau, is really ‘in-residence’ and at work on Ruth’s spouse and marriage.

Madame Arcati, who starts all the trouble, is usually played trumpet-voiced and bossy, a bike-riding local busybody. In the 1970s musical version, High Spirits, Coward updates her to a beady and fruity-voiced New Age hippie. Rosemary Luke offers a more subdued and soft-voiced view of the character. She is weirdly otherworldly, but at the expense of the main joke of Coward’s first act. Charles and his cohorts expect a weird and wistful wraith and instead get a bumptious athletic spinster who runs the séance like the leader of a girls’ hockey team.

The plot points come across well-enough, except in the closing moments of the action, where Anne Mitchell’s wispy and stumbling housemaid Edith is revealed to have played a key role in all the spiritual shenanigans, but in a way that ought to have been clear but wasn’t to me.

The packed house on Sunday loved the show and you can still catch it next Sunday at 1:30 at the Monterey Museum of Art.