Noel Coward plays ought to be handled as if they were the very best champagne, which, when properly chilled, sparkles perfectly. The current production of "Blithe Spirit," though full of fizz, has been mounted by people who think you have to shake the bottle. Also, as if the taste needed improving, some prune juice has been added.
Like other Coward plays, "Blithe Spirit" is about someone bedevilled by people from his past. During a seance a novelist has organized to gather material for a new book, the ghost of his first wife materializes. Even the medium who unwittingly summoned her can do nothing to get rid of her.
Questions about Life, Death and Marital Happiness arise, but, as one would expect in a play about spirits, nothing has any gravity.
Neurosis was not a part of Coward's theatrical vocabulary. His characters do not allow emotions to fester. Instead, tensions evaporate in wit - hence the feeling one has in good Coward of bubbles constantly bursting to the surface.
In this production the only thoroughly effervescent element is Blythe Danner, who has a spirit of verve and malice that enlivens her every scene. As the embattled second wife, Judith Ivey has some delicious moments, but the intensity of her emotions sometimes takes the edge off the dry humor.
Richard Chamberlain looks debonair as the writer, but his jauntiness is effortful. Flippancy should not require so much work.
As for the prune juice, it comes in the form of Geraldine Page, as the medium. Her speech is either exaggeratedly fussy or, like her movements, sloppy. Her jowly face constantly suggests looniness rather than eccentricity. It is as if one member of a string quartet insisted on playing Mozart in a Spike Jones arrangement.
The supporting cast is fine, the sets and costumes stylish. There are laughs, but it's Cold Duck, not Mumm's.
Hail to thee, "Blithe Spirit!" Bard thou never wert. Shelley got it almost right, even though he bought the wrong vowel - using bird for bard. But then he was writing about a skylark, and not Noel Coward's minor classic, which last night underwent a starry, but not very skylarky, revival at the Neil Simon Theater.
It is a difficult play to stage - for by now it is a classic, though scarcely of Bardic proportions. It is not even a very important play in Coward's own canon.
However, it does call for a classic style - an approach that can be either stylistically conventional, or, permissibly, trade on what Jonathan Miller terms the play's "afterlife," a method he used so successfully last season with O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night."
So you can make the production into a essay in period style - or a contemporary response to that style. Brian Murray, the director of this production of "Blithe Spirit," and his distinguished band of actors seem to have done neither. Nor perceived the choice.
The play is fragile - its humors are not iron-cast in character, as are those in "Design for Living," "Private Lives" or "Hay Fever."
The modestly diverting story has a writer, Charles Condomine, researching occult science for a novel about a medium, and inadvertently materializing the spirit of his dead first wife, Elvira, to the acute discomfort of himself and his living second wife, Ruth.
However, nearly all the jokes hinge on the same vaudeville routine, in which one person imagines that remarks are intended for him or her when they are in fact directed at another, unheard, person.
Thus, laugh after laugh must be squeezed from the confusion of Ruth overhearing Charles talking to the invisible Elvira. It's funny the first two or three times, but the jape wears out its welcome.
The one superb character is the no-nonsense, bicycling medium, Madame Arcati, made immortal by Margaret Rutherford, first on the London stage (her role was taken by Mildred Natwick in New York) and later, almost indelibly, in the famous movie version, starring Rex Harrison.
What keeps this "improbable farce" (Coward's own phrase for it) afloat is Coward's wit and dialog. The people are not people but puppets - they are not meant to feel anything. There is no subtext, no satire, no brave pain beneath the laughter, no sociological dust under the fancy carpet.
It is style, pure and simple, that London's first cast had in 1941, when not only was Rutherford the most perfect of Arcatis, but Kay Hammond (also in the movie version) proved adorably and sexily adenoidal as Elvira, and Cecil Parker (a heavy in many old British movies) ideally bewildered as Charles.
The best revivals have always played "Blithe Spirit" with as much surface gloss and artificiality as possible. Harold Pinter - comic pauses abounding - staged a fast, glittering production for Britain's National Theater a few years back, whereas a more recent, but far more ponderous, version in the West End last season flopped.
Murray's production is heavy on the farce, but misses the wild fancy of Coward's improbability.
Almost everything - except for one and a half of the performances - is subtly but crucially wrong. The setting by Finlay James looks like an affectionate memorial to all the West End drawing-room sets of the period, but shares their heaviness rather than vouchsafes a comment.
Murray is at his best devising comic business - some broad, such as Madame Arcati's flying martini, some more delicate, such as the ghostly Elvira's silent but appraisingly amused comparison between Ruth and her portrait on the wall.
But he has more difficulty persuading the actors to speak their lines clearly, and without phony nuance. The worst offender is the usually worthy Richard Chamberlain as a disastrous Charles.
Coward divided men into sticks and non-sticks. Charles is a pompous ass, but he is not a stick. If he were acting in "Private Lives" he would play Elyot, not Victor. But Chamberlain here is the epitome of Victor, even a Victor's Victor.
No one else is as badly miscast, but that dazzling actress Judith Ivey comes close as Ruth - though she invests her lines with inherent intelligence and times her laughs with the care worthy of a 3 1/2-minute egg.
But not for one moment does she seem English, Coward-like or a creature of the '30s.
However, even Ivey at her worst is worth a quarter of a good performance, and another quarter of quality is contributed by Blythe Danner's Elvira, which is a little somber - more wreathlike than wraithlike - but has a certain fey charm.
Still, I promised you one and a half performances, and so far that's only a half. The rest is triumphantly made up by Geraldine Page's exultant Madame Arcati, who plays her medium rare.
She is outrageous, unlikely and wonderful. She encrusts mannerisms upon mannerisms as if doing crochet. She is about as English as the Bronx, and runs over the play like a bulldozer in heat.
Yet she is absolutely right and very funny. Knowing she is fighting the memory of Miss Rutherford, she adopts a scorched earth policy to annihilate it.
As for the rest and Murray?
How do you play Coward? I have no idea - what would a critic know? But try to say, without any inflection, the phrase "a honeymoon in Budleigh Salterton," and see if you know why it's funny. These people, I think, don't.
In Noel Coward's ''Blithe Spirit,'' a middle-aged novelist named Charles Condomine must contend with the outspoken ghost of his not so dear, departed wife. The spirits who hover over the play's revival at the Neil Simon Theater are another story. Watching this flat all-star ''Blithe Spirit,'' one can only think back to Broadway's last misbegotten all-star assault on the same playwright - the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton ''Private Lives'' of 1983. Whatever Coward himself is up to in the spirit world, it's safe to assume he has no clout at central casting.
While this ''Blithe Spirit'' isn't quite as maladroit as the infamous ''Private Lives,'' it's nearly as tiresome. Four first-rate actors - all except Blythe Danner miscast, none in top form - struggle for three acts to find the light touch that might make this lark, written in less than a week in 1941, take flight. The efforts grow more desperate as the night stretches to trance-inducing length. The few scattered laughs have little connection to the author's intentions but a lot to do with the high-decibel fulminations and outrageous mugging beloved by the dispensers of television's canned laughter.
The play so cavalierly dismantled is about many things, but bombast and chin-quivering are not among them. Once the eccentric, bike-riding psychic Mme. Arcati (Geraldine Page) has conducted her Act I seance, Charles (Richard Chamberlain) suddenly becomes the apex of an astral love triangle pitting his ethereal first wife, Elvira (Miss Danner), against his more pragmatic second, Ruth (Judith Ivey). The intrinsic fun of this premise is compounded by the playwright's ability to milk its supernatural gags in verbal and physical permutations: When one or more characters on stage are invisible to others, wisecracks and thrown props invariably richochet farcically between intended and mistaken targets.
The solid comic construction allows room for content, some of it tinged with sadness, along with the many jokes. As Elvira and Ruth pull Charles between the eternal poles of sensual abandon and stolid rationality, so the hero plots an unexpected escape from the terrifying perils of emotional commitment and the guilt-inducing weight of a loved one's death. It's no wonder that ''Blithe Spirit'' struck a nerve in wartime England, or that Harold Pinter, who created his own out-of-time love triangles in ''Old Times'' and ''Betrayal,'' once directed the play in a London revival.
In the production at hand, the essential reality required to mine the characters' humor and substance is lost as gin-dry repartee coarsens into shrieking insult humor. Miss Ivey, a wonderfully idiosyncratic comic actress who has been consistently misused since ''Hurlyburly,'' turns Ruth from a rigid realist into a cartoonish heavy - a hyperventilating battle-ax who explodes in red-faced, clenched-teeth fits of unfunny rage. Equally out of sorts is Miss Page, who tries to find the innocence within the dotty but spiritually sincere medium in Act I, only to revert thereafter to the squeaky vocal tics and flouncing physical gestures that she had put aside during her memorable recent turns in ''A Lie of the Mind'' and ''The Trip to Bountiful.'' Theoni V. Aldredge's costumes for Mme. Arcati - layer upon layer of loud tweeds and silks - are far more amusing and British than the performance within them.
When a Coward witticism occasionally does emerge unscathed in this ''Blithe Spirit,'' chances are that it is spoken by the relatively restrained Mr. Chamberlain or Miss Danner. Sporting a tux and, to stiffen his upper lip, a mustache, Mr. Chamberlain brings much effort and skill to the effort of capturing the Coward persona embodied by Charles. But the role is not a natural fit - which it must be, with this playwright - and the actor snaps too many of his flippant lines too hard, hurling rather than floating them. Only at the end, when a liberated Charles declares that he's at last enjoying himself ''immensely,'' does Mr. Chamberlain fully relax and seem to find some pleasure in his assignment.
Even if she had a another first name, Miss Danner would still be an ideal choice for Elvira. The character's mischievous sexuality can be found in her throaty voice and mocking eyes, the otherworldliness in her ability to suggest a ghostly levitation whenever she walks. It says much about the production, however, that even this performance eventually grates. Left to her own devices and lacking balanced foils, Miss Danner becomes a bit precious, tossing her blond curls and nibbling on her bright red fingernails until Elvira's diaphanousness seems more calculated and coy than effervescently sexy.
The director presiding over such sloppiness, which is further accentuated by the summer-stock-level supporting players, is Brian Murray. The buoyant touch that he brought to a previous Coward revival, the Rosemary Harris ''Hay Fever,'' gives way here to the heavyhandedness of his recent ''Arsenic and Old Lace.'' Yet Mr. Murray took over this production after it was under way, and he is blameless in the crucial matter of casting. Presumably he also inherited Finlay James's apt set - an archetypal 1930's Kent living room in which the cut flowers boast higher spirits than any of the play's personages, living or dead.