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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
By Jon Magaril
It's the season of the octogenarian at Center Theatre Group. This fall, eighty-one year-old Cicely Tyson and eighty-four year-old Lois Smith gave masterful dramatic performances in The Trip to Bountiful and Marjorie Prime, respectively. Next month, eighty-seven year-old Alan Mandell stars in Arthur Miller's The Price. And currently at the Ahmanson, their elder Angela Lansbury is playing medium Madame Arcati to the maximum. Like her character, the eighty-nine year-old is in touch with something that's out of this world. Her stellar performance in the Noel Coward classic has verve, detail, and the kind of charisma that can makes theater such an electrifyingly vital, transcendent experience.
The rest of the production is charming but largely earthbound. It avoids tapping into the text's undercurrents, which push and pull between need and independence, the humdrum and the high-flown. Instead it opts to glide by smoothly, but somewhat superficially, on lapping waves of gentle wit and bits of style.
As a result, the play often betrays its age except when Lansbury, who was already a teen at the time of its '41 debut, is on stage. Another recent Coward revival, Pasadena Playhouse's production last season of A Song at Twilight, proved his work can still be refreshingly flavorful when lacing the smooth with a trace of the writer's sourness.
When Michael Blakemore first directed Lansbury in this on Broadway five years ago, he did greater justice to the play. He cast a trio as novelist Charles Condomine, his new wife Ruth, and his deceased first wife Elvira whose performances remain vivid today. Many in the current tour are less ideally cast and, even while on view, seem relatively indistinct.
Coward created the roles speedily in a white heat using basic, contrasting characteristics. Ruth is pragmatic. Elvira, high-spirited. Whether in the flesh or from beyond the grave, the women try to control Charles, who's dedicated most ardently to his solitary work. Rupert Everett and Jayne Atkinson, Blakemore's original Charles and Ruth, were the crème de la creme, effortlessly embodying these key details.
The current pair, Charles Edwards and Charlotte Parry, are more half-and-half, accomplished but uninspired. He's affably conventional, with none of the "certain seedy grandeur" Elvira describes as defining her husband. Parry, who shined in last season's Broadway revival of The Winslow Boy, has a way with her lines that makes them snap. But she doesn't seem different enough from Jemima Rooper's Elvira.
What still works beyond any doubt or diminishment are Lansbury's delightful scenes as the eccentric Arcati. Her seances, done initially at Charles' behest as research for his new work on the occult, are a scream of the funny kind. Lansbury's movements to summon spirits would earn her an exalted place in The Ministry of Silly Walks.
The plot gets rolling when Arcati unwittingly succeeds, calling forth Elvira from the great beyond. Only Charles can see or hear her, so the literal-minded Ruth doesn't believe her predecessor has returned to the premises. It's a ripe farcical conceit, which demonstrates how past relationships can get in the way of making present-day commitments. Rooper, who played Elvira in the production's recent London stand with Edwards and Lansbury, is assertively droll.
Unfortunately, her silver wig is unhelpfully helmet-like. All of Simon Higlett's new set and costume design is functional but a step down in style from Broadway. Fortunately, Martin Pakledinaz' get-ups for Ms. Lansbury remain. Another carry-over from the New York production is Susan Louise O'Connor as Edith, the maid with surprising powers of her own. Her performance, already broad before, seems stretched somewhat thin here.
The first act climaxes with slam-bang physical humor when Charles finally convinces Elvira to make her presence known to Ruth by moving a vase. The second half, which combines Coward's original latter two acts into one ungainly stretch, comprises an extended battle between the wives for Charles. The action's got galvanizing twists and turns, but plays here somewhat sleepily. The leading trio could benefit from being just a bit larger than life. After all, these characters don't let a little thing like death get in their way.
Though some of the production's assets have dematerialized for the current tour, nothing should stand in your way from seeing Ms. Lansbury dazzlingly live on stage. When the run concludes here, the show moves on to San Francisco's Golden Gate Theatre and the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto, before finishing the winter in D.C, where she made her American stage debut nearly six decades ago.
Charles, like many of Coward's heroes, ends the play by exiting the stage quietly to be happily alone. Ms. Lansbury clearly prefers the company of friends and strangers and we're all the better for it. Her undimmed talent is here to stay.