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Surefire comic spirits 

More than six decades after Noel Coward took about two weeks to toss off his enchanting ghost-frolic, BlitheSpirit, it is still delighting audiences in frequent productions around the world. Everybody loves the show, but it's about time to start respecting it as a modern classic of foolproof comic theater, as well. Blackfriars' enjoyable revival this month underscores that point.

After a rocky first act on opening night, Blackfriars' ingratiating cast settled into director Jean Gordon Ryan's playful production and got into the fun sufficiently to have the audience laughing and cheering by its conclusion. Vicki Casarett and Amy Smith inhabited their roles with charm and authority from the start, but it took a while for the others to get past effortful deliveries of lines with painful approximations of English accents. Forget about nervousness and finding rhythms on their first performance before an audience. I'm convinced that what lifted the actors to their best playing was the ever-increasing invention and hilarity of Coward's surefire script. It's unstoppable.

We begin with an edgy, upper-class English couple, the Condomines, who are awaiting dinner guests, including a local medium they've engaged to conduct a séance for them. Coward created the zany clairvoyant for the great comic actress Margaret Rutherford, whose galumphing, cliché-spouting Madame Arcati is preserved in the 1945 film. Arcati's eccentric behavior climaxes in a session of spiritualism that calls up the ghost of Charles Condomine's capricious first wife, Elvira. Charles' dilemmas with his battling wives, ghostly Elvira and all-too-alive Ruth, push the rollicking remainder of this comedy into a tailspin.

In this cast, only Vicki Casarett's Ruth does justice to Coward's satirical punch (e.g., answering her husband's inquiry about whether there's anything interesting in the Times she's reading with "Don't be silly!"). Ken Klamm makes her husband Charles unexpectedly boyish, and substitutes endearing vivacity for assurance and bite. Amy Smith makes the most of the physical comedy that director Ryan allots her by combining elfin wickedness with sexy languor. She's adorable; and her visible frustrations with Madame Arcati's maladroit psychical bungling are as funny as Casarett's. Ryan and Casarett perform in appropriately contrasting styles.

Barbara Lobb doesn't begin to get the goofy quirkiness of Arcati until that happy medium gets girlishly ecstatic over actually being in a room with a materialized ghost. Then, I might as well say, she gets into the spirit of the play. So does Meredith Powell as Edith, the hilariously awkward young serving girl who hides a blithe secret of her own. In minor roles, Kathy Dauer is a ladylike guest and Jim Valone's comic shtick as her husband is bizarre. With wide-eyed stares accentuated by excessive eye make-up and grimacing expressions, he hovers over those he talks to, looking like a cross between Bela Lugosi and Abe Vigoda ; and his equally mannered vocal delivery sounds like a Boris Karloff imitation.

Amanda Frances Horne's costumes are appropriately attractive. John Haldoupis' beautiful set is highlighted by an imposing, original, Edwardian-style painting by Haldoupis that turns out to be the grand prize for the auction tickets on sale in the lobby. And an especially grand prize it is!

BlitheSpirit, by Noel Coward, directed by Jean Gordon Ryan, plays at Blackfriars Theatre, 28 Lawn Street, Thursdays at 7:30, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. through October 26. 454-1260 or www.blackfriars.org.

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