PROVIDENCE - Blithe and spirited "Blithe Spirit" is, especially in a production as fleetly directed and crisply acted as the one now onstage at Trinity Repertory Company. But Noel Coward's sparkle always harbors a shadow, too, and a wise director lets us feel the darkness even as we delight in the glitter.
Curt Columbus is such a director. His first production as Trinity's artistic director, last season's "Cherry Orchard," revealed as much, and here he displays the same gift for polishing the surface to a brilliant sheen even as he hints at the sorrow underneath. "Blithe Spirit," after all, is a comedy about a man who loses not one but two young, beautiful wives to sudden and tragic deaths. How funny is that?
But of course that's the trick: It's hilarious. And the more we feel the shivers, the more hilarious it is. That balance is a lot harder to pull off than it looks. And Columbus not only does it, but does it at lightning speed: Coward's three acts are trimly presented with just one intermission, and the whole thing clocks in at about 2:15.
The speed makes this "Blithe Spirit" feel very light on its feet, and that's as it should be. The charming banter of Charles and Ruth Condomine quickly segues into the goofy dinner-party-with-séance with Madame Arcati. Then we barely have time to savor the scene-stealing performance of Cynthia Strickland as Mrs. Bradman, the dinner guest whose girlish eagerness to see a ghost is matched only by her ironclad control of her husband, before Phyllis Kay flits in to steal a few scenes of her own, as the enchantingly acid-tongued ghost of Charles's first wife, Elvira.
Actually, neither one of them can completely steal a scene, because they're surrounded onstage by a uniformly expert pack of thieves. Angela Brazil's brittle chirpiness as Ruth Condomine dissolves irresistibly into fury and hysteria as her ghostly rival muscles in, while Fred Sullivan Jr. makes Charles a wonderfully absurd package of pomposity and fluttering disbelief. William Damkoehler's Dr. Bradman is quiet, fussy, and prim - just right; Brown/Trinity Rep Consortium student Anna Van Valin plays the hysterical maid, Edith, with a charming mix of goofiness and sangfroid.
And then there's Madame Arcati. Barbara Meek swoops in, all sparkly beads and fringe, and has a field day with the histrionics of this larger-than-life character. It's hard not to have fun with Madame Arcati, but Meek is particularly delightful as she sniffs the air for the scent of "protoplasm," conducts a ridiculous little stomping dance of exorcism, or very un-ethereally snags a whole tray of egg-salad sandwiches for herself.
James Schuette's set is a marvel of chintzes and crystal decanters, with a few "Modernist" paintings thrown in to remind us that the Condomines consider themselves the height of '30s British chic. William Lane's costumes add to the atmosphere with sleek gowns for Ruth, fluttery ones for Elvira, and all that fringe for Madame Arcati, and John Ambrosone's lighting is both sparkling and spooky, as the moment requires. Best of all, perhaps, is the way we keep hearing variations on Irving Berlin's "Always" - the song that calls Elvira back, and one that appropriately lingers between scenes.
Kudos both to sound designer Peter Sasha Hurowitz and to Columbus for that appropriate, delicate touch. It may sound like a little thing, but it's the little things that make Coward big.
Or, as Madame Arcati appreciatively tells Charles, after sipping her first cocktail, "You're a very clever man. Anybody can write books, but it takes an artist to make a dry martini that's dry enough."
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.