Syracuse Stage's "Blithe Spirit" is an uneven but spirited comedy

Curzon Dobell (as Dr. Bradman), Elizabeth Ingram (as Mrs. Bradman), Patricia Hodges (as Madame Arcati), and Jeremiah Wiggins (as Charles Condomine) in the Syracuse Stage production of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. Photo by: Michael Davis  

Blithe Spirit

Who Syracuse Stage

Where 820 E Genesee St., Syracuse, NY

When Through October 6th

Tickets $18-$49

Review by Max O'Connell

Syracuse Stage’s production of Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” has a curious problem, in that it oscillates back and forth from being quite funny and being not quite funny.

The play takes place in 1939 England and follows Charles Condomine, a successful author who arranges for the oddball medium Madame Arcati to hold a séance in his home. Arcati summons the spirit of Elvira, Charles’s deceased first wife, but she appears visible only to Charles. Elvira is excited to be with Charles again, but there’s someone else standing in the way: Ruth, Charles’s current wife.

Coward’s play is accurately described in the playbook as “delightfully effervescent”, but what’s most striking about the play is that many of the funniest lines are humorous because of their sagacity ("It's discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty, and how few by deceit”). Edward Albee (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) said that the play was about “the way we kid ourselves that we do and do not exist with each other and ourselves.”

And it’s precisely that sentiment that makes “Blithe Spirit” more than an amusing trifle- the idea that Charles has lied to himself about the truth in his relationships. Coward’s work has a wonderful balance of dry wit, madcap supernatural farce, and comedy of the profound, and one need only cast and stage it right.

Gisela Chipe (as Elvira) and Jeremiah Wiggins (as Charles Condomine) in the Syracuse Stage production of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. Photo by: Michael Davis

But the production gets off to a rough start as the words register more as theoretically funny than actually funny. The first act drags interminably, and it’s completely befuddling. Coward’s dialogue is funny. The situations are funny. The show is more than competently directed by Michael Barakiva. The set and costumes are handsomely made. The actors seem well cast: Patricia Hodges makes an agreeably daffy Madame Arcati, Jeremiah Wiggins a delightfully milquetoast Charles, Joey Parsons a subtly dominant Ruth.

Yet for roughly an hour, “Blithe Spirit” is an elegantly staged bore, the timing and delivery of Coward’s words ever so slightly off, by turns too quick or too slow to register. And in comedy, there’s no margin for error. It’s either right or it’s wrong.

The arrival of Gisela Chipe as Elvira in the end of Act I signals a slight spike in energy, with Chipe’s vivaciousness pushing Wiggins to greater heights. It isn’t until roughly halfway through Act II, however, that “Blithe Spirit” truly soars, as the actors seem more comfortable at playing mounting exasperation during the madcap moments (Elvira moving objects around to a shocked Ruth, Ruth attempting to address Elvira without being able to see her) than they do when delivering witty bon mots. Whenever the production quiets down again, it sags. But through most of Acts II and III, when the ghostly doings are at their most farcical, it’s easy to forgive the production’s unevenness.