Few giddy thrills in 1st Stage’s ‘Blithe Spirit’


Steven Carpenter as Charles and Evan Crump as Madame Arcati in the 1st Stage production of Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit.” (Teresa Castracane)

What can you do with a warhorse like “Blithe Spirit”? Noel Coward’s ghostly comedy is snappy and professional at 1st Stage (tucked away in a small Tysons Corner strip mall), and it isn’t enough. The performance is bright and fast but uninspired. It spins in place.

Coward wrote the thing in six days in 1941, so clearly he was having fun. It’s been staged nonstop ever since, at every level from high school on up. Poke the brush and you’ll scare up productions all over: It just closed in Cleveland, and this week it opens across Lake Erie in Stratford, Ontario. Saying it’s overexposed understates the case.

1st Stage doesn’t have any notable tricks up its sleeve for its stab at the silly saga of Charles Condomine, his lively wife Ruth and his even more lively (yet dead) wife Elvira, who suddenly haunts the happy marriage thanks to a sloppy mystic named Madame Arcati. The show’s only gambit is that Arcati is played by a man in drag, but — surprise! — that’s done with such reserve as to make practically no impression.

Arcati is the star part; Angela Lansbury played it on Broadway in 2009 and won a Tony Award for it at age 83. (Geraldine Page was Tony-nominated in 1987; she died of a heart attack during the run.) In Lee Mikeska Gardner’s production, Arcati is portrayed by the lean and composed Evan Crump. Scarved, bewigged, in slinky trousers and clinking bracelets, Crump glides around curiously as the psychic sniffs the air for protoplasm.

Crump is assured, but he exudes more savoir faire than eccentricity as Arcati presides over the dubious seances and passes out from the fuss. His cool approach is strangely reasonable; as the medium, he’s medium. If Arcati doesn’t whirl the performance into a sublime comic realm, it’s tough for the show to become delectably blithe or spirited.

Steven Carpenter certainly can’t manage it from his position as Charles, fearless though he is in wading yet again into Rex Harrison territory. Carpenter was Henry Higgins in the Washington Stage Guild’s recent “Pygmalion,” and the machinery of masculine pique and upper-crust diction is much the same here, if slightly more hardworking.

The capable Liz Mamana looks and sounds like she’s been beamed in from a 1940s film lot; her suits and her comportment are appealingly crisp. But only Dani Stoller seems truly comfortable. As Elvira, the mischievous ghost, Stoller kicks off her fancy shoes — the practically weightless royal blue gown that set and costume designer Steven Royal creates for her is terrific — and plays the femme phantom with vampy verve. Her devil-may-care zest gets closest to the fizz and giddiness you’re hoping for.

Pressley is a freelance writer.

Blithe Spirit

by Noel Coward. Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner. Lights, David Sexton; sound design, Derek V. Knoderer. About two hours and 15 minutes. Through June 16 at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Rd., Tysons Corner. Call 703-854-1856 or visit 1ststagetysons.org

Nelson Pressley has been writing about theater and other arts – but mostly theater – for the Post since 1999.
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