Ghosts are nothing new to Cape May – you can even take walking or trolley tours to hear about their alleged Victorian and post-Victorian hauntings. So there’s something right about Cape May Stage presenting Noël Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” as its late-summer offering, ghosts and all.
Coward’s 1941 play about a séance gone wrong – or going right, if you’re the medium and you’re looking for a connection from the past – was a big hit in London, then did well on Broadway before it became a movie and after that a stage musical. The entertaining version of the original play in Cape May, staged by the company’s producing artistic director Roy B. Steinberg, shows why “Blithe Spirit” has had so many incarnations: It’s light, has a nice tension and is full of Coward’s glib repartee.
Maybe a little too full, because at times “Blithe Spirit” seems like a back-and-forth volley between the Bickersons, a one-note dialogue that gets old fast. But Coward saves the script by incorporating its constant mannered nastiness into a fast-moving plot that keeps you guessing about how it could possibly end. When it does, that ending at Cape May Stage makes an impressive mess of things that already seem pretty messy.
The story involves Charles (Julian Elfer) and his second wife, Ruth (Michelle Eugene), whom he married a few years after his first wife passed away. Charles is an author, and wants to round out the plot of his book with some real information about the way the occult works, so he calls in his friends (Thomas Grube and Isabella Knight) for a little dinner party with Madame Arcati, a neighbor well-known for her spiritual connections. (She’s played by Jennifer Harmon.)
After dinner, they arrange themselves around a table — all but Madame Arcati are skeptical, of course – and a séance begins. Madame Arcati falls into a trance and all of a sudden, who should appear but Charles’ first wife (Charlotte Munson), come to haunt him and insisting that he’s called her back. Only Charles can see or hear Elvira, his former beloved – a problem that begins to haunt his second wife, particularly when both she and the spirit are in the room and Charles responds to them both.
“Blithe Spirit” has a hokey resolution that involves a house servant (Iraisa Ann Reilly), for reasons that Coward doesn’t make altogether clear. But by that time, you’re caught up in the machinations of a current wife, a former one, a husband who’s getting strangely comfortable with the haunting as well as the reality, and a feisty medium called back to the scene.
The cast does the play justice. Although at times Harmon’s Madame Arcati delivers understated, no-nonsense line readings for such a character, she does come off as a woman confident of her powers. Eugene and Munson, as the wives, look to be having a good time, and even the often befuddled Elfer, as the husband, handles the tricky situation with a twinkle. Spencer Potter’s set puts us in a high-toned, stuffy living room, and the sound (Andrew Lutfala), lighting (Cyrus Newitt) and costumes (Michele Sinacore) add to the supernatural flavor. If you’re conjuring up an old ghost like “Blithe Spirit” itself, this is the way.
_“Blithe Spirit” runs through Sept. 19 at Cape May Stage, 405 Lafayette St., Cape May, N.J. 609-770-8311 or www.capemaystage.org.