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A CurtainUp Review
An Improbable Farce in Two Acts
By Elyse Sommer
While a good deal of magic still clings to his name, the trend for less artificial theatrical fare has turned Coward's brittle comedies, with their distinctive but hard to precisely define style, into nostalgic artifacts. Except for a very modest 104-performance Broadway revival in 1987, American theater goers know Blithe Spirit only via the 1945 movie and regional productions. Dated or not, however, when done right Coward's intentially flippant fare can still be enough fun to have Broadway legs, as proved by a 2002 production of Private Lives (review). In the case of Blithe Spirit, doing it right can reveal erotic and psychological depth beneath the Cowardesque chatter. Thus, with New Yorkers being blitzed with bad news about the economy, their job security and the difficulties of ending two unpopular wars, the producers of the latest revival of this wartime prompted ghost story may well be right in thinking that it will once again prove to be a perfect escape from grim reality.
Naturally, it doesn't hurt that the producers have hedged their bets with an elegantly designed production and a starry cast that features the one and only Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati and Christine Ebersole as the oh-so-blithe spirit who emerges during a seance Arcati conducts at a dinner party in mystery novelist Charles Condomine's posh living room. No doubt about it, Lansbury's name above the marquee had a lot to do with packing the Shubert Theater right up to the second balcony at the Saturday matinee I attended. The entrance of the octogenarian whose 50-year career includes movies, four Tony winning musicals, and long running TV role as mystery writer Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote, was greeted with long and enthusiastic applause. Ebersole's other worldly Elvira also didn't just slip in through the French doors of Peter J. Davison's handsome set but received a round of enthusiastic clapping.
The new revival is further bolstered by having Michael Blakemore at the helm, seasoned Coward interpreter Rupert Everett cast as the urbane but woman-dominated Charles Condomine and the excellent Jayne Atkinson as Ruth, the sexy Elvira's feet-on-the-ground, somewhat bossy successor. Unlike Maria Mileaf's misguided effort to modernize Blithe Spirit during the 2007 season at the Williamstown Theater Festival, Mr. Blakemore has applied Madame Arcati's frequent caution against concoctions intended to improve on a simple dry martini. Except for conflating thre three acts to allow for a single intermission and projected silent film style announcements about the next scene to accompany the between scenes music (and yes, that includes Irving Berlin's "Always") , Mr. Blakemore has made no attempt to give Coward's ghostly confection a new sensibility.
All these assets notwithstanding, it is indeed Angela Lansbury who is the main attraction. Looking great in each of three outlandishly gorgeous outfits (bravo, Martin Pakledinaz!) and a wig with Germanic earmuff-y braids (courtesy of Paul Huntley) that evokes memories of her Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, Lansbury has created her own delightfully over-the-top Arcati. To be sure, this is the play's richest acting opportunity and I've seen miscast and misdirected productions that were saved by whoever cycled on stage to handle the zany spiritualist's mumbo-jumbo gambit. But Lansbury, with her pert face and distinctive voice and status as a genuine legend, invests Arcati with a fizz and buoyancy that makes it one of this season's not to be missed performances. The fact that she's obviously having great fun is contagious and watching her dance around during a seance defies anyone to question the believability of her being fit enough to cycle the 8-mile distance between the Condomine home and her own.
Lansbury's being the box office magnet does not mean this is an otherwise terrible production. It's just that at two hours and fifteen minutes, plus intermission, there are more than a few scenes when things creak along rather than generating peals of laughter. Too bad that Mr. Blakemore, in his determination to remain true to the original as possible, chose not to speed things up a bit.
Rupert Everett, who's making his Broadway debut, is as charming, selfish and sophisticated a Charles as you could hope for. Like Rex Harrison of the film version, he understands and taps into the Cowardesque humor. Jayne Atkinson is delightful as the brisk and pragmatic second wife who apparently shares more qualities with his mother (the first dominating woman in his life) than his sexy first wife. Ebersole is a lovely Elvira though there are times when you almost think she's going to abandon her ethereal persona to morph into the more down-to-earth Little Edie from Grey Gardens and sing "The Revolutionary Costume for Today.".
Actually, there's another character besides Madame Arcati who's a good bet for a runaway star turn. The role is that of Edith, the eager to please but terminally inept maid. Susan Louise O'Connor's Edith may not please her mistress, but she more than pleases the audience. She's hilarious whether moving at a self-conscious snail's pace, or uncontrollably racing in or out of the room.
As for the other supporting characters, Doctor and Mrs. Bradman, Simon Jones is competent if not a standout but Deborah Rush is not well cast as his wife. Most egregiously, her voice puts the spotlight on a problematic sound system. This is a large theater (1,479 seats) so it's understandable that some or all of the actors are miked, but Rush seems to have been fitted with a device that makes her sound unnaturally loud. Perhaps, these problems will be adjusted. On the other hand, Brian McDevitt's lighting adds enormously to the play's visual look, especially in a morning breakfast scene that lights up the room with sunlight coming in from the garden.
While Blithe Spirit may prove to be the right temporary bailout from low spirits, at least the blitz of bad news isn't likely to require a warning such as the one included in the program note of the original British playbill: "If an air raid warning be received during the performance the audience will be informed from the stage . . . those desiring to leave the theatre may do so but the performance will continue."