Noel Coward's rules for living, if he ever wrote them down, might include the following:
Always make fun of your closest friends. Be as promiscuous as circumstances allow. Don't make the mistake of taking yourself too seriously. And never, ever hold a seance without first knocking back several dry martinis.
All these lessons -- and more! -- materialize seemingly out of thin air in Coward's delightful minor comedy "Blithe Spirit," a consummate production that opened in the Kavinoky Theatre last Friday under the direction of David Lamb.
Coward's play, reportedly written over a single week in 1941, sets out to charm and disarm audiences from the very first line of dialogue. It plays out in the drawing room of Charles and Ruth Condomine (Chris Kelly and Kristen Tripp Kelley), a happy-go-lucky novelist and his doting wife, each of whom come to be literally haunted by their sordid past.
In order to drag that past into the present, Coward invented the device of a seance led by the eccentric and somewhat ineffectual Madame Arcati (Anne Gayley), who helps summon the ghost of Charles' assertive ex-wife Elvira (Diane Curley).
There is lots of unfinished business, and the unlikely trio spends the play in a series of hilarious and ultimately futile attempts to overcome lingering animosities and fan simmering old flames.
In the process, audiences get to hear some of Coward's best comic writing, which when properly delivered can make Judd Apatow and company sound like Pauly Shore.
Whatever you may think of the willfully ridiculous conceit Coward dreamed up for "Blithe Spirit," it's tough to do anything but marvel at his gift for cutting repartee. This gift is nowhere more evident than in the many captivating exchanges he wrote for Charles and Ruth, who go at each other with a kind of playful glee.
They are like the opposite of the existentially challenged couple in Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance" now devastating theatergoers at the Irish Classical Theatre Company, because they have accepted that there are no real stakes.
That means they're perfectly free to drown themselves in gin when the mood strikes, hold seances for "research" purposes and make the best of a life that they both seem to acknowledge as absurd.
Kelly and Tripp Kelley rise to the task. Each has an expert command of Cowardian sarcasm -- that perfect mixture of feigned exasperation, bonhomie and smug self-satisfaction -- and they milk it for everything it's worth.
Tripp Kelley, reprising her role from an ill-fated Irish Classical Theatre production of the play in 2007, is scintillating. She just melts into the skin of her character, making every expression and bit of dialogue part of a seemingly effortless whole. Kelly, ideally cast as Charles Condomine, gets his character's devil-may-care confidence and easy wit almost exactly right.
When Curley's perfectly petulant Elvira enters the mix, constantly swishing her flowing gray gown (one of many excellent costumes designed by Dixon Reynolds) and saying terrible things about Ruth that Charles can hear but his wife cannot, the fun starts in earnest.
As Madame Arcati, the brash, bicycle-riding medium of erratic style and dubious talent, Gayley struck me as an odd choice. But her performance is a comic delight -- a touch more polite than expected, perhaps, but all Gayley's own.
Lamb, who lit up the stage last year in Coward's "Present Laughter," does a fine job directing traffic and making sure tongues remain firmly embedded in cheeks throughout the production.
David King's set, gleaming as usual and expertly lit by Brian Cavanagh, holds its own surprises.
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
WHEN: Through May 20
WHERE: Kavinoky Theatre, 320 Porter Ave.
INFO: 829-7668 or www.kavinokytheatre.com