The enduring popularity of "Blithe Spirit" owes as much to its archly whimsical premise as to the adept way that author Noël Coward dispatches his bon mots. Both are on display in the well-appointed Hermosa Beach Playhouse revival of this indestructible property.
Reportedly written in six days during the Blitz, Coward's "improbable farce" has been a crowd-pleaser since its 1941 London premiere, Broadway triumph and David Lean's 1945 film version. It transpires in the Kent homestead (capaciously realized by designer Christopher Beyries) of successful author Charles Condomine (Don Fowler) and sensible Ruth (Kimberly Patterson), his second wife.
Through the kind of epigrammatic exposition that Coward virtually patented, we soon surmise that the Condomines' marriage is more contented than rapturous, a crucial distinction. After dotty medium Madame Arcati (Sara Borgeson), an unwitting research subject for Charles' latest book, inadvertently conjures up Elvira (Meredith Rensa), his late first wife, all domestic heck breaks loose.
Watching consternated Charles argue with conniving Elvira, whom only he can see and hear, while Ruth grows increasingly certain that her mate has gone bonkers, provides much of the fun in "Blithe Spirit."
Director Stephanie A. Coltrin keeps the high jinks respectably workmanlike, and her players are capable. Patterson neatly avoids making Ruth either shrew or saint, most endearing in her escalating ire at Fowler, whose Charles smoothly devolves from clipped to phlegmatic. Although Rensa's spectral intruder sometimes verges on over-mannered she is suitably wily, a crepuscular merger of Julie Newmar and a Tim Burton ingénue.
As Madame Arcati, a role forever associated with originator Margaret Rutherford, Borgeson reads too young by half but devours each whoop, twitter and cucumber sandwich. The understated Suzanne Petrela shines as pivotal maid Edith, and Darrell Philip and Suzanne Dean offer competent support as the other séance guests.
The designs are impressive, especially the era costumes by Karen L. Cornejo and Christa Armendariz, and everything is reasonably diverting, if not exactly hysterical. The overall effect is more efficient than effervescent, partly because of the material's familiarity, partly because the script is, as always, a droll dash-off masquerading as classic Coward. That inequity may not trouble those who approach this boulevard enterprise with the proper spirit, blithe or otherwise.
Nichols is a freelance writer.
"Blithe Spirit," Hermosa Beach Playhouse, 710 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach. 8 p.m. today through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday. $35-$45. (310) 372-4477. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times