Clever comedy can make you feel a wee bit uncomfortable.
After all, it deals with two subjects that make some people profoundly squeamish: Ex-spouses, and death.
Noël Coward blithely combines them both, and it’s a testament to his wit — and perhaps, to our affinity for Downton Abbey, The Crown and other British fare– that this play still goes down as smoothly as a dry martini, decades after he served it to audiences seeking respite from the mortal terror of the London Blitz.
The premise: Imagine the ghost of your first wife haunting your second marriage.
This one requires precision timing and a deft balance between seriousness and slapstick. Fortunately, the Shakespeare Theatre excels at this sort of thing, as it proved with A Servant With Two Masters, Tartuffe and What the Butler Saw, among other recent productions.
Victoria Mack, whose acting credits with the company include Tartuffe, makes an impressive directorial debut. She gets fine comedic performances from Tina Stafford (It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play; A Christmas Carol; A Child’s Christmas in Wales) as Madame Arcati, a loopy medium in search of an “ectoplasmic manifestation,” and from Susan Maris (Servant of Two Masters, Wonderful Life) as Elvira, the devilishly departed first wife of novelist Charles Condomine, played with rakish flair by Brent Harris (Tartuffe).
Charles’ second wife, Ruth, (played by Shakespeare Theatre newcomer Kate MacCluggage) must endure being second-guessed by a specter only her husband can see. And Susan Maris clearly enjoys spooking it up as that jealous visitor from the astral plane.
There are plenty of laughs. And if some of them are nervous, well, we’ll just have to learn to live with them, won’t we?
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison presents Noël Coward’s comedy Blithe Spirit, directed by Victoria Mack, Aug. 31, 2018, at 8 pm; Saturday, Sept. 1, at 2 pm and 8 pm; Sunday, Sept. 2 at 2 pm and 7:30 pm. Tickets start at $49. At 36 Madison Ave., 973-408-5600.