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Bad manners laughable in PICT Classic Theatre British farce 'Blithe Spirit'

| Tuesday, May 6, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Vera Varlamov (right) plays the ghostly Elvira brought back from the dead by a seance who refuses to leave her remarried husband Charles Condomine, played by Dan Rodden, in PICT Theatre's 'Blithe Spirit' at The Charity Randall Theatre in Oakland.

An evening with the Condomines can be highly entertaining — and exasperating.

The spouses at the center of “Blithe Spirit,” Noel Coward's comedy of bad manners that opened the PICT Classic Theatre season, possess a sophisticated wit as dry and delicious as the martinis they consume.

But, like many of Coward's characters, they also are self-obsessed, smugly satisfied, entitled and opinionated members of the mid-20th century British upper classes.

First produced in 1941, the comedy opens on an English summer evening as Ruth and Charles Condomine are awaiting their dinner guests in their tastefully furnished country house in Kent.

Charles, an established author, has invited another couple to join him and Ruth for dinner and a post-dinner seance with Madame Arcati, the neighborhood psychic.

He's hoping Madame Arcati will be a complete charlatan and provide him with lots of background and details he can use for his next book.

Madame Arcati exceeds everyone's expectations. Instead of producing parlor tricks, the medium unwittingly conjures up Charles' first wife, Elvira, who has been dead for seven years.

Only Charles — and the audience — can see and hear her, which initially causes a great deal of misunderstanding between him and Ruth and generates a lot of laughs for the audience. It quickly becomes apparent that Elvira intends to stay, and the second half of the play revolves around Ruth's, Charles' and Madame Arcati's fruitless attempts to send her back over the great divide.

You might expect your sympathies to lie with Ruth. But Daina Michelle Griffith plays her with such unnecessarily peevish impatience that you begin to enjoy Ruth's frustration at not being able to rid the house of Vera Varlamov's Elvira.

Neither Dan Rodden's Charles nor Varlamov's Elvira are any more sympathetic. This trio deserves to spend eternity sniping at each other over a pitcher of martinis.

That may be what director Alan Stanford was aiming for. He markets the 2014 season under the banner “Something Wicked This Way Comes” and is on record as saying the characters' treatment of Madame Arcati is wicked and that they ultimately pay for that.

Don't misunderstand. They may not be nice people, but separately and together, Charles and his two wives are extremely funny.

So are Lissa Brennan and James FitzGerald as the Bradmans that the Condomines recruit for their seance. Brennan and FitzGerald mine the humor of a long-married couple who have learned to read each other's signals and moods.

Karen Baum, who plays the Condomines' eager-to-please but much maltreated maid, Edith, is loaded down with some awkward movements, presumably for the unnecessary purpose of generating additional humor.

The real star of the show is Madame Arcati played with proper intensity and a nicely underplayed wackiness by Mary Rawson. She has a flair for phrasing a simple sentence to mine its comic potential in ways that the playwright himself would applaud.

Scenic designer and props master Johnmichael Bohach provides a suitably posh upper-class living room that's just a rung or two down the social ladder from Downton Abbey. Joan Markert clothes both the living and the recently returned in suitably tasteful period garb.

Performances of “Blithe Spirit” are few and far between, and Stanford's production will leave you wondering why that is. For a show that runs 150 minutes, it's an elegant but swiftly paced farce that gets the summer theater season off to a promising start.

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com. or via Twitter @ATCarter_Trib

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