Good comedy is famously known as a high-wire act. Timing, tone — everything must be finely calibrated for a show to be funny, for it to actually work as comedy.
On Saturday, a friend and I caught “Blithe Spirit,” now running at Cannon Beach’s Coaster Theatre. Noel Coward’s 1941 romantic comedy tells the story of Charles, a married man who invites a medium to perform a séance at his home as part of research for his book — and the medium ends up conjuring the ghost of Charles’ dead wife. It’s a play driven by witty, screwball dialogue that flies so fast it’s almost impossible to catch every joke.
I asked the actors if it’s a challenge to keep a straight face while people are laughing through their characters’ rapid-fire repartee.
“Only if something goes wrong,” said Ellen Jensen, who plays the dead wife’s spirit. That is, only if something breaks the rhythm or reality of the performance.
David Sweeney, who plays Charles, said that, over time, the actors get to know where the likely laughs are, and it becomes easier to anticipate them without giving away that they’re anticipating them.
“The first couple times you have an audience, you don’t know exactly what they’re going to respond to, and then after a while it becomes fairly clear what are the sort of usual triggers of laughs,” he said. “And sometimes they’re things you don’t expect.”
The challenge for Sweeney, he said, is “always to let the audience decide, and not try to telegraph, ‘I want you to laugh now.’”
Every night is different, because every audience is different.
Karen Martin, who plays the medium, said actors tend to give better performances, not when they have the silence to concentrate, but when the audience is laughing at things meant to be funny.
“If they’re really quiet, that’s harder, because we need the feedback to build the energy,” she said.
It helps when at least one audience member starts laughing early on, because the rest of the audience then feels it has permission to laugh, too. “A lot of people are very shy about laughing out loud,” she said.
What the actors hope for is a joyous feedback loop: The actors drawing laughter from the audience, the laughter feeding the actors’ performances. So, if it’s a comedy, Martin said, “Laugh! Out loud!”
On the night I saw “Blithe Spirit,” theatergoers — including me and my friend — did laugh out loud, and often.