When it comes to drawing-room comedies, it’s pretty hard to top Noël Coward

by Ted Hoover

Here’s news — Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre has announced a name change. Henceforth the company will be known as PICT Classic Theatre. Some of you may recall the tumult from last season, when artistic director (and company co-founder) Andrew Paul was forced out and Alan Stanford assumed the post.

So it’s out with the old and in with the new — which makes the selection of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit as the season-opener especially ironic. In this 1941 comedy, our hero, Charles Condomine, is having his own old/new troubles.

Seven years ago, Charles’ wife, Elvira, died and he’s now married to Ruth. As research for his new novel, he’s invited a local psychic over so he can study her lingo and techniques.

The psychic, Madame Arcati, turns out to have more enthusiasm than sense and brings back Elvira “from the other side.” Unfortunately, only Charles can see and hear her. Which doesn’t sit at all well with Ruth.

At its core, Blithe Spirit is a drawing-room comedy about a house guest who won’t leave. And when it comes to drawing-room comedies, it’s pretty hard to top Coward. That Blithe Spirit plays out exactly how you think it will, and that Stanford has directed a very smooth production, isn’t a complaint. It’s fun and funny, with highly enjoyable performances. As Arcati, Mary Rawson’s a delightful mix of hocus-pocus kookiness and tweedy, prototypical British matron. Daina Michelle Griffith gives Ruth a Maggie Smith spin and is wonderfully funny. Charles is rather one-note — he mostly whines about how put-upon he is — but Dan Rodden finds enough variation to not just hold our interest but make us care about his fate. And Vera Varlamov, as Elvira, can slink across a stage like nobody’s business.

Johnmichael Bohach has designed the quite-handsome set for the company to play on. And on. And on. The problem is that Coward just doesn’t know when to get off. The jokes to be made in this slender set-up are made early and then often, and I found the play to be over about 40 minutes before Coward did.

But, then again, 40 extra minutes of Coward isn’t exactly the worst thing in the world.