The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey 2018 season’s strong comedic start continues with Noël Coward’s 1941 neurotic satire, “Blithe Spirit,” seen at the Saturday evening, Aug. 18, press opening. Favorite leading lady Victoria Mack makes her Company directorial debut, expertly guiding the seven-member cast in this incredibly believable spoof of refined manners and spooks. The only reason to excuse her from performing the lead onstage is the magic she worked offstage. Her “Blithe Spirit” is a triumph, the perfect union of smart dialogue with split-second comedic timing.

The story, in brief

The marriage of Charles and Ruth Condimine is a second go-round, each having buried their respective first spouses. All action occurs within the unit set of their elegant drawing room. Into it flows an assortment of society friends (Dr. and Mrs. Bradman), the socially awkward maid (Edith), and a colorful village denizen who claims a gift for contacting people who have “passed over” (Madame Arcati). The outflow from said drawing room is an alternating succession of lovey-dovies, feuding spouses, and an otherwise cool and collected group on the verge of lunacy. The catalyst is Charles’ first wife—the spoiled, limelight-loving Elvira—whom Madame Arcati unwittingly draws back from the beyond.

Since only Charles and the audience can see her, the formula for hilarity is foolproof.

Chic look

Scenic designer Charlie Calvert and Costume Designer Hugh Hanson have created upper-crust architecture, furniture and bodily furnishings that depict a 1920s era of more innocent times. Sound Designer Käri Berntson cleverly contributes, among other things, a 1926 recording—used throughout as an economical plot pivot—of Irving Berlin’s “Always,” sung by Canadian tenor Henry Burr.

Debuts signaling success

More than 20 years have passed since The Shakespeare Theatre’s prior production of Noël Coward’s ‘Blithe Spirit.’ Three actors make promising stage debuts in this run. Monette Magrath is the elegant and delicate Mrs. Bradman, who is genuinely interested in the afterlife. Kate MacCluggage is Ruth Condimine, Charles’ level-headed second wife.

Bethany Kay is the klutzy Edith, who tries her darnedest to behave as a proper British maid, if she could only master the urge to sprint indoors. Called on in the final moments to sing while hypnotized, she does so, badly—revealing the immense vocal talent required to pull it off believably.

Leading men and ghostly first wife

Company veterans play the lead and supporting male roles. Brent Harris is Charles Condimine, a successful author.

(He invites Madame Arcati, chiefly to cull material for his next novel about a character with her professed gifts.) As Charles’ friend and physician, Dr. Bradman, Ames Adamson has not much to do, but he does it suavely and with style. Susan Maris is the passed-over Elvira Condimine, who wants her first husband dead, but not in a malicious way. She first appears late in Act I, but makes up for lost time, impishly pestering Charles, flirting with him, and spooking Ruth and Edith.

Shameless scene stealer

Tina Stafford is Madame Arcati. Ah, where to begin? First, kudos to makeup artists, for transforming this lithe young woman into someone easily twice her age. Second, Ms. Stafford’s brand of physical comedy should be patented and trademarked.

Now and then, her contortions and twitches and pratfalls bring to mind a young John Cleese, but mostly due to his legginess, not so much how he uses his body for laughs.

First-rate facts

  • Like the fictional Charles Condimine, songwriter Irving Berlin—who wrote “Always”—eventually remarried after losing his first wife to an illness similar to Elvira’s.
  • Director Victoria Mack identifies Noël Coward’s inspiration for the play’s title as the opening line of Percy Shelley’s poem “To a Skylark”: “Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!”

Only until Sunday, Sept.

2, “Blithe Spirit,” by Noël Coward, at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, N.J.—#Everything Music and Theatre.