AMELIA BEAMISH Actress Amy Prieto makes her CNY Playhouse debut as the ghostly Elvira, in “Blithe Spirit,” running through Jan 26, at ShoppingTown Mall.
Back in 1941, “Blithe Spirit” became a huge hit both at London’s West End and New York’s Broadway. In those pre-TV days, audiences reveled in clever wordplay and caricaturish characterizations of the higher classes. “Spirit’s” playwright, Noël Coward (1899-1973), was a master of the genre known as comedy of manners.
That was then, however, and this is now.
21st century audiences have different tastes and far shorter attention spans and will find Coward’s endless dialogue something of a drag.
CNY Playhouse has mounted a two-and-a-half-hour-long production of “Blithe Spirit,” directed by Peter Fekete, a Syracuse native who made his theatrical bones as founder of The Basement Players in Rochester. Helming his first production at CNY Playhouse, Fekete realized the challenges he undertook with “Spirit.” In his director’s note, he admits that Coward’s wordiness would necessitate deft delivery and careful comic timing.
While Fekete’s cast of seven give it the old college try complete with passable British accents, their best efforts cannot resurrect this moribund drawing-room farce. The story of a man humorously haunted by a former wife may have been irreverently funny 75 years ago, but it falls rather flat in this era of death denial and Tinder sex.
Fekete also pointed to special effects as another daunting task at hand. Here he and the multi-talented Sarah Anson – stage manager, lighting designer, sound designer and co-set designer – succeed admirably. Atmospheric fog aptly accompanies the entrance of ghosts, strobe lights flicker, cuckoos call and poltergeists mischievously knock books off their shelves and paintings from their walls.
The problem with this play isn’t the tech, though, it’s the dialogue that’s far more wordy than witty, at least to modern ears. It just goes on and on and on.
Mere memorization taxed each of the actors, the sheer mountain of which may explain why less attention was paid to framing the gags.
In any case, handsome leading man Derek Potocki acquits himself well as Charles, proving that his talents extend far beyond his specialty in fight choreography and stunt work.
The sleek and serious Jodi Halczyn excels as Charles’ new wife, Ruth, who is understandably upset and envious after his dead wife, Elvira, appears on the scene, seen and heard only by Charles.
A new arrival with acting credits in Maryland and California, Amy Prieto plays Elvira with an ironic joie de vivre, especially since her character has been “passed over” for seven years.
Anne Fitzgerald might’ve stolen this show as the eccentric spiritual medium, Madame Arcati, but her character suffers the same fate as the others: too many lines and too few punch lines.
Rounding out the cast are Rich Bocek as Dr. Bradman, Liz Stanistreet as Mrs. Bradman and Jessie Dobrzynski as Edith, a fat, fleet-footed maid.
Unless you’re already a fan of Noël Coward’s supercilious silliness, you may want to pass over this “Blithe Spirit.”
“Blithe Spirit,” produced by Kathy Egloff, runs at 8 p.m., Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Jan. 17, 18 and 19, at 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 20, and at 8 p.m. Jan. 24 to 26, at CNY Playhouse, located near the Macy’s entrance at on the second level of ShoppingTown Mall. Tickets cost $20 on Thursday and Sunday, and $22 on Friday and Saturday; cnyplayhouse.org; 315-885-8960.