Mary Piona has blessed us with many memorable performances at the 2nd Space Theatre over the years, but it’s hard to imagine a role more perfectly suited for her than Madame Arcati, the wacky psychic who gives Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” much of its comic jolt.
We first meet Madame sporting a turban – what else? – and exactly the demeanor you’d expect from an oddball psychic living in a small English town: intriguing accent, dramatic delivery, sweeping gestures, an affinity for falling into trances.
What I like most about Piona’s portrayal is the way she combines a youthful giddiness (she’s ecstatic at the prospect of contacting departed souls in the great beyond) with a hard, no-nonsense crust when it comes to defending her chosen profession from skeptics. (She doesn’t just cast a withering glance, she fires it with a bazooka.) Add to that Piona’s deft approach to physical comedy, and it’s a winning portrayal all around.
As for the rest of “Blithe Spirit”: I wanted this “improbable farce” (the script’s subtitle) to match the promise of its larger-than-life psychic character, but the Good Company Players production just didn’t do much for me, comedy-wise, at the opening weekend performance I attended.
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There are some chuckles, certainly, in Coward’s story of Charles Condomine (GCP veteran Gordon Moore), an author who invites Madame Arcati to his home to conduct a séance. What the psychic doesn’t know is that Charles is actually researching his next book.
And what the author doesn’t know is that Madame Arcati has enough juice as a clairvoyant to entice his dead ex-wife, Elvira (Britt Monahan) back to the land of the living. Which is exactly the kind of thing that Charles’ current wife, Ruth (Liz Stoeckel), might find objectionable.
Director Denise Graziani has a nice touch with the seance scenes, helped by Evan Commins’ lighting design. But the play overall doesn’t feel brisk enough, in terms of pacing and blocking, to keep the laughs flying along. I wanted a zestier dynamic – a livelier and slightly more cantankerous sensibility, perhaps? Things feel a little creaky and expected. Moore finds a wry take on his character, but Monahan and Stoeckel at times struggle to get out of bland territory with theirs.
Henry Montelongo gives an assured performance as Dr. Bradman, one of Charles’ friends. Brooke Rowland has some nice moments as a hyperactive maid, but she could use stronger direction to make her character a recurring comic standout.
Still, “Blithe Spirit” is smooth and appealing, and Coward’s polished prose goes down easily. And Piona, who anchors the show with a strong performance, is a standout. (Her costumes, designed by Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed, add to the appeal.) A drawing-room English ghost comedy might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but this romp about the land of the dead still has a lot of life.