IF YOU PUT a radar gun on almost any Noel Coward comedy it would go into the red zone, or off the scale, or whatever radar speed guns do. Coward moves. Every time I've seen Coward done to perfection there's a sense of velocity behind the comedy, as if Coward were out to prove he's quicker and quicker-witted than anyone else, including the actors saying his lines. He's right, too.
It isn't simply how fast one talks. This isn't theater for rock radio announcers. It's a whole set of lightning fast reactions and adjustments to a vast array of comedic subtleties and nuances.
The new performance of what could very well be Coward's most popular and familiar comedy, "Blithe Spirit," by the Irish Classical Theatre Company has almost everything going for it, except this lively speed. Nothing about it suggests this is the way it must be, for the actors are very good, the set, the lighting, the costumes, all work toward a performance that looks like it is going to be more entertaining than it is.
First of all Anne Gayley gives a terrifically dotty performance as Madame Arcati, the medium. She flings herself around the tiny Irish Theatre stage whooping at the spirit world and collapsing into trances. She's very sensible, not to say ordinary in most everything, such as arriving on a bicycle, but at the mere mention of protoplasm she completely loses it.
Her hosts on this fateful evening are Charles, a writer, and his second wife, Ruth. Basically they parade their sophistication and superiority to mediumistic hokum at the same time Charles cajoles Madame Arcati into a seance for book research he's doing. Peter Palmisano and Josephine Hogan are convincing in all categories of this seance charade.
To round out a seance table they've dragooned Dr. Bradman (Carl Kowalkowski looking medically conservative and pleased with the proceedings) and his wife. Geraldine Duskin plays her, tall and elegantly dressed, as might be expected. Duskin is author of the lovely costumes, fitting to this country house and which reach brash adventurousness with the dangerously low-cut dressing gown on Elvira.
Elvira's clothes look as if they are going to slip off to the spirit world at critical moments, which adds some meta-theatrical tension. Perhaps it's nothing to worry about. Elvira is a ghost Madame Arcati has mistakenly conjured up. She happens to be Charles' first wife, who died young of pneumonia and a heart attack brought on by listening to a BBC cultural program (vintage Coward).
As played poutingly, fetchingly and vixenishly by Kristen Gasser she is a sight to behold. A question might be, is she the right sight for this comedy. Draped as she is and looking and behaving as she does Gasser makes a middle-aged writer's fantasy, no question about that, but this makes her a kind of babe and not a real adversary on the level of Ruth, which is the point of the play. Of course you say Ruth can't see her, but we can, and we're the ones expected to be tickled at this worldly-other worldly battle by two formidable wives.
The maid is window dressing early in the play and then a key plot element at the very end. She is played nicely by Rachael Lorenc.
Why doesn't everything snap into place and take off, leaving us to hang on for dear life. Some of it does. There are very good, very funny moments with Palmisano and Hogan, Palmisano and Gasser, Palmisano and Gayley, Palmisano and Hogan and Gasser together. But the sustained sense of hellbent comedy isn't altogether present
Maybe it should be said, not yet. Steve Vaughan's direction seems to be competent. The elements are there. Perhaps the fine tuning that comes with additional performances will make the difference. Because the difference is itself subtle, difficult to pin down exactly, except to say that it at opening night it had life but not maximum liveliness.
Rating:**** Inspired comedy by Noel Cow ard about a husband and wife and the ghost of his first wife. Directed by Steve Vaughan, fea turing Peter Palmisano, Joseph ine Hogan, Kristen Gasser, Anne Gayley, Carl Kowalkowski, Geral dine Duskin and Rachael Lorenc. Performances continue Thurs days and Fridays at 7:30, Satur days at 3 and 7:30, and Sun days at 2, through Nov. 24. "Pay-what-you-can" show Satur day. Irish Classical Theatre, 48 W. Chippewa St.