Noel Coward first crossed over into the spirit world in 1941. The playwright reputedly cranked out "Blithe Spirit" over the course of five days during the bombing of London.
No doubt the audience, battered by the Blitz and keenly aware of matters of mortality, was all too ready to laugh at a frothy farce about the afterlife. Certainly, the play has been materializing big-time at the box office ever since.
Director Mark Rucker channels the wordplay and whimsy that make Coward ("Private Lives," "Present Laughter") so intoxicating in his breezy revival, which runs through Sept. 2 at Cal Shakes. Starring American Conservatory Theater regulars Rene Augesen and Anthony Fusco and newly minted ACT grad Jessica Kitchens, this "Blithe Spirit" transports the audience into the realm of carefree frivolity. If the third act lacks the exuberance it deserves and the pace drags when it ought to dance, Rucker succeeds in keeping the wit as dry as the martinis.
Set in the '30s, before World War II plunged the country into chaos, this posh boulevard farce spins around a staid couple who invite a medium, Madame Arcati (Domenique Lozano), to hold a seance during a dinner party. The swanky Condomines intend to view the whole business as a lark, a diversion between the petit fours and the port, as well as research for Charles' (Fusco) new novel.
But soon the world of the supernatural has crashed the party, and the socialites are confronted with the ghost of his first wife, Elvira (Kitchens), a platinum blonde with a lust for life. Alas, second wife Ruth (Augesen) cannot see or hear the ghost of her rival. The ectoplasm hits the fan as the characters struggle to keep up appearances despite the paranormal activity and the unavoidable overtones of menage a trois.
Ironically, Augesen and Fusco just recently played a husband and wife, buried in massive urns, grimly bound together forever in the exquisite "Play" at ACT. As the Condomines, they are quite a bit less gloomy, if not exactly enraptured by each other.
Augesen and Fusco are old hands at stylish period pieces, and their ease with each other feeds into the elegant cadence of the play well. Still, Fusco needs to shade Charles with a tad more suaveness, and Augesen isn't enough of a prig to make Ruth seem truly comical.
Kitchens, however, sparks as Elvira, giving the apparition a sense of vulnerability as well as chic. Lounging about the sofa in her silks, wife number one seduces Charles with hints of his lost youth. Kitchens has a Cheshire cat smile that's perfect for Coward's brand of acid badinage.
Questions of love and loss are flirted about with Coward's customary sense of flippancy here. Even the fear of mortality can be brushed aside with a cheeky bit of banter. That dapper sense of escapism must have been an elixir to the wartime audience. It's worth noting that the playwright dashed off this comedy while on a holiday he took after his apartment was obliterated by bombs.
Perhaps he yearned for something life-affirming. Indeed, there are few characters quite as irresistible as the kooky clairvoyant Arcati. This psychic is half Miss Marple, half gypsy and completely dotty but still the play's the most lovable figure. Certainly, Lozano finds the humanity in the character, the warmth and wisdom in her commitment to her craft.
Honesty and deceit
If the battle of the bon mots between Charles and his dueling loves can get a bit tiresome, there's a freshness and vivacity to Arcati that's utterly captivating. She makes the rest of the characters seem shallow and brittle by comparison.
For the record, Coward is famous as the personification of sophistication, but it's the little bits of messiness peeking through all that poise that gives the plays zing. As the playwright puts it: "It's discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit."
All of the lovers are truly cads at heart, trying to swindle each other in one way or another. Only Madame Arcati means exactly what she says, but she's only listened to by those in the great beyond.
By Noel Coward
Through: Sept. 2
Where: Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda
Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes, two intermissions
Tickets: $35-$71, 510-548-9666, www.calshakes.org.