The question one asks when sitting down to see a 74-year-old comedy is this: How well does it hold up?
In the case of Noel Coward, the answer is usually, it holds up very well. His snippy and natural dialogue, peculiarly revealing plots and structure are always masterful. And while the pre-war society he depicts, his "set" of upper, upper middle class British (that is, they have servants but not their own yachts) whose world is split between some vaguely intellectual profession and snooty idleness, has largely vanished along with, happily, some of the class pretensions that drive his jokes. But in the popular imagination that world still exists and always will, as surely as Jane Austen's country gentry and Charles Dickens' sooty city dwellers.
In the case of "Blithe Spirit," the Coward comedy now playing at Anchorage Community Theatre, the play is further assisted by being a ghost story. There's something about laughing at the dead that fosters theatrical immortality; "Topper" and "I Hate Hamlet" are among the classics of the genre.
"Blithe Spirit" involves a writer, Charles (Jim Haacke), his wife, Ruth (Jacqueline Hoffman), and his dead wife, Elvira (Jordan Knudson), who rematerializes after a séance led by a flamboyant spiritualist (Jana Lage). Elvira has gone through the bureaucratic process of getting permission for a visit in hopes that Charles still loves her best. Ruth would like her gone. Charles is somewhat put out but keeps his options open and, after repeated attempts at fixing the business, the spiritualist admits there are some things beyond the power of mortals to change.
The action all takes place in Charles and Ruth's living room, an animated set by Brian Saylor. The acting was also animated; the supporting cast includes Michael Andrew Clark and Tiffany Dunn as friends of the homeowners and Roberta Cecere as their hapless maid. Despite unnecessarily long pauses to redress the set from scene to scene and script directions full of mixing drinks and answering the door, Coward's skillful arrangement of events kept everyone paying attention on opening night.
It could have been a lot tighter, however. The show is funny, but funnier when the timing is precise. The accents were all over the map and, frankly, not needed in the U.S. of 2015. The class and regional distinctions they once imparted are lost on most of us. It would have been better had director Colby Bleicher toned them down or told the cast to forget them and concentrate on memorizing their lines. The two acts ran longer than usual due to gaps that opened in several spots on the first night.
But as long as the lines are Coward's, it doesn't matter too much. Every minute of the show brings a zinger like these: "I remember her physical attractiveness, which was tremendous; and her spiritual integrity, which was nil." And "We've both been married before. Careless rapture at this point would be both incongruous and embarrassing."
Coward's incongruities make perfect sense, and his embarrassments are always received with the puckered pleasure of a dry martini.
BLITHE SPIRIT will be presented at 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday through Nov. 1 at Anchorage Community Theatre, 1133 E. 70th Ave. Tickets are available at actalaska.org.