The 400-Word Review: Blithe Spirit
By Sean Collier
February 26, 2021
In updating the canonic stage play “Blithe Spirit,” director Edward Hall and a trio of writers have created a stew of comedy styles.
There are chunks of the early-20th-century screwball farce that marked the show’s previous adaptation, a pleasant 1945 romp. There are moments that feel derived from contemporary — or at least ’90s — sitcoms, with broad repartee and arched eyebrows. There’s heavy seasoning from “Looney Tunes”-esque slapstick.
There’s a lot in the pot, in other words, including some good flavors. This is not, however, a dish that fully comes together. Some bites are better than others.
The play, a 1941 gem by Noel Coward, is as ubiquitous on community theater stages as it has been on the West End and Broadway, with a nearly 2,000-show initial London run preceding mountings in every barn and summer-stock stage in the western hemisphere. Revivals are incessant — last on Broadway in 2009, last in London shortly before COVID-19 — so it’s no wonder, and no fault, that enterprising filmmakers would try to dust “Blithe Spirit” off for another go.
It’s a solid premise, after all. After inviting a medium (Judi Dench) over for a bit of after-dinner fun, struggling writer Charles (Dan Stevens) is shocked to find the ghost of his late wife, Elvira (Leslie Mann), back from the ethereal plane. That’s bad news for Charles’ second wife, Ruth (Isla Fisher), made worse by the fact that Charles can see Elvira and Ruth can’t.
“Blithe Spirit” works on stage by milking zaniness out of that scenario; Ruth doesn’t know which wife Charles is talking to at any given moment, Elvira is free to snipe to Ruth’s face and Charles grows increasingly flustered. In both this and the 1945 adaptation, those moments are funny and effective — particularly so, in the new version, thanks to Mann’s savory, lively performance.
Witty dialogue and comedies of errors only go so far in 2021, though, hence the additions. Mann’s sight gags and pratfalls assuredly work; I got a genuine belly laugh at the sight of a hurled typewriter decapitating a nearby statue. A deepening of the script, however, via a pair of Charles’ inadequacies — one intimate, the other professional — feels unnecessary at best. This “Blithe Spirit” feels like a decent evening at the theater; you won’t complain, but the night is going to hang more on where you go for dinner.
My Rating: 6/10
“Blithe Spirit” is available via digital on-demand services.