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Stage Review

Malick energizes a mod take on Coward's 'Spirit'

WILLIAMSTOWN -- Seldom, if ever, do Neil Diamond and Noel Coward appear in the same sentence. Surely it is not difficult to understand that there is a reason for this.

And yet director Maria Mileaf sets her production of "Blithe Spirit" for the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 1973, so sound designer Fitz Patton obligingly supplies scene-changing snippets of "Sweet Caroline," "Cherry Cherry," and other time-capsule tunes. The songs make perfect sense with Neil Patel's sets and Katherine Roth's costumes, which feature mod pantsuits and miniskirts, Op Art upholstery, and sideburns to rival Micky Dolenz's, but they make almost no sense at all with the martini-fueled banter of Coward's supernaturally silly farce.

What's remarkable, then, is that the production works as well as it does -- partly because it's hard to flatten this play, and partly because Wendie Malick, as the middling medium who unleashes comic chaos by bringing a curious novelist's deceased wife back from Beyond, is an antic, eccentric, and unstoppable force of nature. In fact, the only acceptable explanation for the mod setting would be that no one could resist the sight of Malick's Madame Arcati cavorting wildly in a suspendered purple bell-bottom getup that is truly from another world.

Of course, Mileaf may also want to remind us that the 1960s-70s mood is now as much of a period piece as Coward's 1930s and '40s. True enough, and it's amusing to see the decade's excesses -- those headbands! those medallions! -- re-created in as much loving detail as a Fortuny gown or a smoking jacket. But the mods' essential wackiness, their gleeful indulgence in wild patterns and garish colors, seems antithetical to Coward's dry and elegant wit.

The chief victim of this approach is Bernard White, a generally capable and refined actor who here must play Charles Condomine, the novelist and Coward stand-in, with scruffy hair and turtlenecks. (Under his dinner jacket, he sports a ruffled tuxedo shirt -- Sir Noel must be spinning.) The mellow vibe infests his performance, too; this Charles seems more likely to take a joint than a cocktail, and the stoner persona drains the sparkle out of his scenes.

Jessica Hecht, as Charles's current wife, Ruth, fares better, with an upper-class drawl and slouch that disintegrate hilariously into two-fisted drinking and chain-smoking as the spirit world invades her own. Kate Jennings Grant is a bright young thing as the late Elvira -- maybe too bright, but then she is supposed to be blithe. And Jenn Harris makes the most of Edith, the awkward, inept, and ridiculously speedwalking maid.

Mostly, though, this is Malick's show. And if her Madame Arcati is not the iconic one -- she's harder-edged, less fluttery, more of a weirdly charismatic shaman than an endearingly dotty mystic -- Malick takes her physical comedy so far over the top that you can't help laughing. She swoops and swirls and launches into unlikely, fleeting yoga poses, then perches tomboyishly on the sofa and unleashes a throaty laugh. This Madame Arcati may get in over her head, but that's because she's a woman who's never afraid to dive into the deep end.

When she's offstage, things too often deflate. And the final scene, which is tricky for any actor to pull off, completely sags. Condomine's farewell to wives and home bears all the earmarks of a "let's-get-this-over-with-and-head-for-the-bar" mood on the part of its creator, and White can't make it fly. To carry off the kind of brittle flippancy that Coward seemed to want, you're better off tipsy than stoned.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

'Related'

Blithe Spirit

Play by Noel Coward

Directed by: Maria Mileaf. Set, Neil Patel. Costumes, Katherine Roth. Lights, Nicole Pearce. Sound, Fitz Patton.

At: Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, through July 29. Tickets, $48-57. 413-597-3400, wtfestival.org

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