Monday, January 12, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "Breaking Away" (on Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit)


breaking away
by Douglas Messerli

Noël Coward Blithe Spirit / Los Angeles, Ahmanson Theatre, the performance I attended was the matinee of January 11, 2105

When I wrote on the film version of Blithe Spirit in late June last year, little did I know I would be seeing a stage production early in the new year—for I might have combined the two and compared them.

     Having now written on a play that I still do not perceive as deeply profound, I have little more to say. Let me just begin by admitting that, as great as it is to see Angela Lansbury exuberantly performing at the age of nearly 90—one of now five memorable occasions when I have seen her perform brilliantly on stage (I’d seen her previously in Dear World, Gypsy, Sweeney Todd and The Best Man)—she cannot compare to the impervious fortress of eccentricities created by Margaret Rutherford. Despite her wonderful comic timing, and her balletic machinations as she prepares to collapse from trance to trance, she is reasonably sane when compared with Rutherford’s rendition of Madame Arcati. And, understandably, she appears a bit frail. Still, since nearly everyone, including myself, is in love with Lansbury, it hardly matters. That she is still “here,” after all these years, clowning through the mad séances and hocus pocus mutters of Coward’s dark comedy is enough! And the remaining cast members, particularly, Charlotte Parry as Ruth, Charles Edwards and Charles, and Jemina Rooper as Elvira are all capable and convincing.  

     What did strike me seeing the play version of the work, embraced in the theatrical conventions of its original subtitle, “An Improbable Comedy,” was just how serious this work really is at heart. Yes, Blithe Spirit is still funny, to which the guttural howls of the man seated behind me attested; indeed the entire audience laughed on cue, particularly when Charles was attempting to converse with his spectral ex-wife Elvira while explaining his extra-sensory perceptions to his understandably skeptical current wife, Ruth. And Madame Arcati is simply, as they used to say, a hoot: a wise owl who knows she’s odd and loves being so; offended only when she is described as an amateur; she knows well that, daft or not, she is the “real” thing. And there were moments, of course, in which even I could not hold back my giggles. 
    Yet, as Barry Day, writing in the play’s program, pointed out, Coward’s play shares a great deal with the works of Harold Pinter such as The Homecoming or even the farces of Joe Orton (on my mind, since my companion and I recently saw a production of his What the Butler Saw). If the characters express a series of witty bon mots, they are aimed with all seriousness at one another. As Day points out, in this play Charles Condomine is not only “between women” as I argue above, but is a kind of bigamist—and utterly enchanted, at least for a while, by the situation. Ruth provides him a highly organized, efficient and intelligent existence, wherein she even helps, so he declares to Elvira, with his writing. Elvira, on the other hand, imbues with life with a blithe spirit, an ethereal and comic lightness and beauty that Ruth cannot provide. In short, Ruth is the real and ordinary, while Elvira, even when she was alive, was simply spirit. The balance is perfect, particularly for a man who appears to have little to offer himself. His major occupation, we must remember, is writing rather predictable murder mysteries, such as the one on which is about to embark, concerning a fraudulent and murderous medium. The fact that Madame Arcati is neither a fake nor has any evil intentions but actually does—with the help of their hyper-energized servant, Edith—conjure up a ghost, nixes his boring story. It seems doubtful, at play’s end, that he will write again—unless it is to recount his horrifying experiences with marriage and the dead.  

     Predictably, as the woman, in their frustration and anger with him and the situation in which they find themselves—particularly after Ruth as well as Elvira joins the dead, and Charles, metaphorically speaking, has helped the “kill them off”—begin to perceive all they have lost, the jokes grow less and less humorous as they turn into bitter jibes and lashing out against transgressions present and past. And explicably, Charles increasingly wishes to be rid of both of them, and when he finally succeeds, all hell breaks loose, as his comfy Kent castle is vengefully shattered and destroyed. The real and the spiritual collide to create chaos, sending this selfish Adam out of paradise into the cold Folkestone streets and, presumably, to a long overseas voyage from which he can never safely return. A bit like the self-centered Teddy of Pinter’s The Homecoming Charles leaves love behind in the ruins, as he moves toward what is probably a meaningless and empty life. If he has temporarily been a bigamist, by play’s end he is a bachelor, akin to his creator, free to seek out the company of his own kind. 
     What has begun as a kind of domestic comedy, accordingly, ends, quite misogynistically, as a tale of man who, having finally weaned himself away from the women he has used and abused all of his life, is condemned to wander the earth just as his wives are doomed to inhabit his now ruined habitat. One might also argue, on the other hand, that Charles has finally entrapped his women in the domestic world at which he saw himself as the center, but which he now free, however pointlessly, to escape. Whatever is out there may be without love, but it possibly may provide new adventures nonetheless, a life he formerly could not imagine.

Los Angeles, January 12, 2015
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (January 2015)

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