BLITHE SPIRIT by Noel Coward, directed by Morris Panych (Soulpepper). At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (55 Mill). To December 15. $5-$59. 416-866-8666. Rating: NNN
Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit was an enormous success when it debuted in 1941 but waned during the postwar years, when its whimsical look at death and the afterlife must have seemed, in the wake of so much tragedy, pretty trivial.
Today, the cleverly constructed drawing-room comedy can still elicit a chuckle or three, but time hasn't made it more profound or meaningful. It's still a silly story set in the English countryside about a writer named Charles ( Joseph Ziegler ) whose dead first wife, Elvira ( Brenda Robins ), comes to visit him after a séance involving an eccentric medium named Madame Arcati ( Nancy Palk ). None of this pleases his current wife, Ruth ( Fiona Reid ), very much.
Morris Panych isn't the subtlest director, so the comedy is broad and heavily underlined. The biggest victim of this is Melody A. Johnson , who's asked to add unnecessary physical gestures to her small role as Edith, the maid. Funny once. Not so much the fifth time.
Ziegler grounds the show with his sensible, put-upon Charles, ever ready with the martini shaker, while Reid relishes Ruth's tart one-liners. Robins, meanwhile, looks great as the vampish Elvira, slinking about sensuously in a red gown that contrasts beautifully with Ken MacDonald 's black-and-white set.
Madame Arkadi is the play's most original - and memorable - character, and although she's a little young for the part, Palk steps into the role, quite literally, with energy. It's a hugely physical performance, and gives the production drive, making the two and a half trivial hours go by a little more quickly.