Preps at Play

At South House through April 24th

NOEL COWARD'S WORLD is a preppy paradise, in which the black evening gowns and white dinner jackets seem to have a life of their own. The collectibles sprinkled around the room exude rechereche. The omnipresent martinis are dry, and the wit drier still. Throughout, the predominant emotion is a practiced bitchiness. "Elvira is about as trusting as a puff adder," Ruth tells Charles. The mousse at dinner "looked a bit hysterical, but it tasted delightful," Charles tells Ruth. Why any of them puts up with the others no one seems to know.

The plot of Blithe Spirit is these people chain-drinking and alternating from backhanded compliment to forehanded insult. One can only imagine the shock Coward must have experienced when he opened a playwriting book and learned that plays require forward plot movement and a climax. The plot he has devised to meet these needs has little to recommend it, neatly alternating as it does from either total predictibility to utter unbelievable with very little in between.

BLITHE SPIRIT TELLS THE STORY of a moderately happy married couple haunted by the blithe spirit of the husband's first wife. Elvira, who is really no more appealing than his second, living wife, but whose unusual status allows her a snideness the other characters cannot match. Throw in an eccentric medium who tries to rid the couple of the unwelcome guest, and the comic possibilities are lush. Logic can have no place in such a world. "After all." Charles tells Elvira. "I've been married to Ruth for five years, and you've been dead for seven." Enough said.

The trouble starts when Mme Arcati (Fatima Mahdi), a bicycling enthusiast and old-fashioned medium given to "ectoplasmic manifestations" enters the scene. Madhdi's Mme Arcati is a short overly made-up lightening-tongued horror, but since this is precisely what Coward must have intended, Mahdi must be credited with a truly inspired bit of comic acting.

Through trance, seance, and her little seven-year-old spirit friend Daphne, Mme Arcati succeeds in calling back Charles's first wife. Elvira (Sarah Browning). "The bulk of the play consists of Charles (Roger Hallowell) mediating between Elvira and Ruth (Deborah Carroll). "If Ruth would just cooperate, we could all have a very jolly time," he finally exclaims.

The acting is a great strength of this production. Hallowell's Charles is an admittedly chilled-out aristocratic sort, clearly amused at life. Browning's Elvira is striking and convincingly deceased-looking, and the timing of her barbs is deadly. Mary Powers makes a noble effort at the rather pointless slapstick Coward has unfortunately saddled the maid with.

The play is set with a grace and fineness that augments the acting well. From the sexagonal throwing to the crystal decanter, the set is perfect for the aristocratic discussions it will contain (from pop psychology to the difficulty of finding good servants). The lighting, at least during the seance scenes, is good enough to prompt occasional gasps from the audience.

AN AMATEUR FREUDIAN could go to town with this play. It probably is all about repression and latent hostility of one sort or another. And there are an awful lot of windows and doors--and as a high school teacher of mine used to say, it's obvious what that means.

But this is really just a play about people who love to hear the sound of their own voices. In a classic line, when Charles tries to interject a comment in the middle of a particularly tiresome tirade by Mme Arcati, she simply turns to him and says, "please let me go on." And she does.

This is a delightful play of verbal dexterity. As one character puts it. "You really are amusing when you are determined to be witty at all costs." But these are clearly the chosen few. Hell, if most preps were half this entertaining, we'd all be at Amherst.