Noel Coward’s 1941 comedy of a married couple haunted by the spirit of the husband’s late first wife has become a staple of theater at every level — professional, community, collegiate and even high school. The latest appearance of the apparition is at the Little Theatre of Alexandria where a fine crew under Joe Schubert make merry with Coward’s concoction.
Tom Pentecost is at the center of the action as a novelist happily married for the second time who invites a medium to conduct a séance in his home, not because he wants to “contact” a spirit, but because he’s writing a novel that includes spiritualism in the plot and he wants to “learn some of the tricks of the trade.” Things go awry when the séance provides an opportunity for his late first wife to come back into his world.
He’s suddenly turned into an “astral bigamist” with his late first wife prancing around his home, invisible to everyone else — especially his second wife. When the spirit of the dead starts moving objects around, however, the second wife becomes an instant believer in ectoplasmic manifestations and also becomes quite jealous.
Pentecost plays the part with a British upper class coolness, at least at the start. This is fitting, for Noel Coward wrote upper class coolness like no other playwright. Like the repeated trips to the cocktail table to stir yet another dry martini, however, the cumulative effect of complications frays his ever-so-solid resolve.
Teamed as first and second wife are Barbara Raffaele (the live one) and Laura Russell (the apparition). They create distinct personalities: Raffaele more reserved but eventually more frazzled by the complications that multiply, and Russell, a more sprightly spirit who is intrigued by the possibilities. They play with the gimmick of one not being able to see the other quite nicely under Joe Schubert’s solid staging.
Shaking things up quite a bit is Frieda Enoch as the medium — the ditsy neighborhood spiritualist who bicycles over to conduct the séance which releases the late wife’s spirit.
WHLE PENTECOST, Raffaaele and Russell start out their segments with cool reserve, Enoch bursts onto the stage, the British version of a life-embracing free spirit. Everything she does, she does full-out. Her delight at her success in finally bringing a spirit from “the other side” fairly bubbles from her, while her anger when she learns of her host’s real reason for inviting her to conduct the séance is an explosion.
Jerry Wolf’s construction team has again created a solid set based on Robert Gray’s design. It had to be solid, for the special effects designed by Russ Wyland wreak a bit of havoc when the spirits become, well, terminally frustrated and take it out on the furniture, drapes and decorations. Other effects don’t come off quite as well, at least not on opening night when there was too much stage fog accompanying the entrances of the deceased, and the sound of the second act storm masked some of the dialogue.
Grant Kevin Lane contributes a collection of costumes that reflect the 1940s British setting, and lighting designers Ken and Patti Crowley enhance the feeling of place with some nice touches including the light from a skylight in the back hall and the glow of the fireplace in the living room.
Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a website covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.