“Blithe Spirit” starts with a round of martinis, and the humor that flows thereafter should be as crisp and dry as an icy cocktail.
If the new California Shakespeare Theater production doesn’t hit all the intoxicating high notes in Noel Coward’s “improbable farce,” it still has plenty of wit and elegance going for it.
That’s not surprising, since “Blithe Spirit,” about a second marriage upended by the first wife’s ghost, is as funny as anything in Coward’s canon. Written during the London Blitz of 1941, it’s a well-oiled laugh machine built around a dotty medium, two competing wives — one corporeal, the other not so much — and the comfortably well-off protagonist they drive to the brink of extremity.
Mark Rucker — who gave Cal Shakes a hilarious production of Coward’s “Private Lives” a few seasons back — directs with a sense of restraint that occasionally keeps the comedy from soaring.
On opening night, despite the efforts of the strong cast, this “Spirit” remained earthbound in its early scenes.
But Rucker’s two-hour, 35-minute (with two intermissions) staging doesn’t stay static for long.
Charles Condomine (the excellent Anthony Fusco), researching the paranormal for a new book, hosts a séance with local medium Madame Arcati (Domenique Lozano).
As Charles, his wife Ruth (René Augesen), and their friends Dr. and Mrs. Bradman (Kevin Rolston and Melissa Smith), settle in with the psychic — who’s already feeling the vibes — it all seems as harmless as a parlor game (Annie Smart’s country house set, bathed in rosy lighting by York Kennedy, creates an appealing backdrop.)
It’s a game that quickly spins out of control. Arcati’s spell releases the ghost of Charles’ first wife, Elvira (Jessica Kitchens), who decides to stick around and have a little fun.
Rucker and company mine the séance scenes for laughs, and Lozano is a pleasure to watch as the medium.
Yet, except for Fusco, who captures Charles’ petulance and exasperation with suave perfection, the rest of the cast is hit and miss.
Augesen, hampered by Katherine Roth’s unattractive costumes, is a curiously flat Ruth. Kitchens gives Elvira a devilish twinkle, but slights the character’s sense of longing for her former life.
Rolston and Smith remain one-dimensional, but Rebekah Brockman scores in the small but crucial role of Edith, the Condomines’ jittery maid. Her final scene is a vibrant bright spot in an evening of ups and downs.