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By John Quinn
Look up “bon vivant” in the dictionary (if such a thing exits anymore; one wouldn’t know from spelling on the Internet) and you’re likely to find a picture of Noel Coward. If F. Scott Fitzgerald found in Jay Gatsby the essence of American high society, Coward was the poster boy of Britain’s 20th century Swell Set. He was also something of a Renaissance Man; playwright, composer, director, actor, singer, Coward summed himself up by noting, “I’ve over-educated myself in all the things I shouldn’t have known at all.”
Many of his plays remain in the common repertoire because they have endured the test of time. His sophisticated comedy “Blithe Spirit,” now in production at Northville’s Tipping Point Theatre, is a case study in flexibility. It was written in 1941, in Britain’s darkest hour, and it was an amusing distraction from the horrors of war. Yet director Suzi Regan, a razor-sharp cast and some creative designers bump the setting into the a-gogo ’60s and add additional punch to an already funny play.
Charles Condomine (Ryan Carlson) is about to pen a novel featuring a homicidal spiritualist. Hoping to pick up some “tricks of the trade,” Charles and his second wife, Ruth (Emily Sutton-Smith), invite over the Bradmans (Brian P. Sage and Hallie B. Bard) for a cocktail party cum seance performed by a local character, Madame Arcati (Leslie Hull). The four skeptics don’t know how they’ll keep straight faces while they watch a humbug in action.
Ah, but Mme. Arcati is no fraud. Her ritual calls up the ghost of Charles’ free-spirited first wife, Elvira (Angela R. Plank). Condomine is a paranormal bigamist.
Anyone familiar with Thorne Smith’s risque romp, “Topper,” knows the rest. Charles can see and hear Elvira; no one else can. Misdirected conversations, especially between husband and wife, lead to resentment, quarrels and suspicions of insanity. Worse, Elvira isn’t going away any time soon, and becomes increasingly possessive of her husband. So much for “Till death do us part!”
The script is witty and winning, and other elements of this production are as they say, “a pip.” Director Regan’s take on high society is that money can’t buy taste. Daniel C. Walker’s scenic design runs towards circles – very suitable for a show where the audience is seated “in the round.” His choice of main color is a whimsical, deliciously tacky yellow. Costumes by Corey T. Globke evoke the late 1960s with dizzying pattern and wild colors. Whether it’s Charles’s Nehru jacket and cheezy medallion, Ruth’s too-too tailored, op-art slacks and tops, or Arcati’s bohemian clash of pattern and layering, the costumes immediately define the characters.
It is notable among this very strong ensemble how the actors have seized Coward’s characters and made them their very own. It takes a sensitive ear to recognize the proper line reading and interpretation to do justice to the performance; tempo, mood and inflection are definitely giving the material a thoroughly enjoyable outing. Madame Arcati is a character that can be interpreted in many ways; Leslie Hull’s intensely physical, broad approach is a wonderful thing to behold. So too is the director/actor collaboration in creating a funny and also physical oddball in Edith the Maid. Nancy Penrose’s frenetic darting about the stage is stark contrast to her absolutely deadpan expression. The contrast will have you in stitches.
The superstitious among us will warn that it’s bad luck to speak ill of the dead. For their “Lucky 7” season, Tipping Point hasn’t given reason to go down that road. Coward would approve. He quipped, “I love criticism just so long as it’s unqualified praise.”
Tipping Point Theatre, 361 E. Cady St., Northville. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Saturday, & 2 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 13, plus 3 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 25. 2 hours. $27-$32. 248-347-0003. http://www.tippingpointtheatre.com