Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 15, 2009
Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit Directed by Michael Blakemore. Scenic design by Peter J. Davison. Costume design by Martin Pakledinaz. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound design by Peter Fitzgerald. Wig and hair design by Paul Huntley. Cast: Rupert Everett, Christine Ebersole, Jayne Atkinson, and Angela Lansbury, with Simon Jones, Deborah Rush, Susan Louise O'Connor.
Yes, in Michael Blakemore's easygoing new revival of the play at the Shubert, Angela Lansbury brings out all these qualities and more from this daffy but endearing woman. But what's even more evident - from her work as well as that of her castmates Rupert Everett, Jayne Atkinson, and Christine Ebersole - is that everything else is as, well, free-spirited as Madame Arcati. Just as she'll cavort about like a hungover gypsy with sprained ankle before entering one of her trances, so too does the show never care about how it looks, what it says, or really anything other than just delivering a great time.
And that it does. Though written and first produced in 1941, when World War II placed death at the forefront of everyone's mind, Blithe Spirit amuses yet today because of the essential timelessness of its story and the wit that idea engenders. After all, who hasn't pondered and feared the afterlife, or worried that our past mistakes and the family, friends, and lovers we've wronged would literally come back to haunt us before we made it there ourselves?
This is the conundrum facing Charles Condomine (Everett) and his wife Ruth (Atkinson). Charles, a popular British novelist researching his next book, engages Madame Arcati for an after-dinner session at his home in Kent, and ends up summoning his first wife, Elvira (Ebersole), from the Great Beyond. She's still more than a little infatuated with Charles (who can see and talk to her) and resentful of Ruth (who can't), and sets about making all manner of trouble for both of them, encouraging innocuous conversations that to Ruth appear vicious and bringing about a series of accidents that make the real world as dangerous as eternity itself.
Blakemore has defined his commitment to the work largely by his willingness to stay out of it. Aside from refashioning the three-act original into two acts, which doesn't much impede the flow of the action but also does nothing to help it, he shows almost unguarded respect for the piece. He's not afraid to keep the action very quiet, even low key, and he forces far fewer jokes than you might expect if you saw his 1999 revival of Kiss Me, Kate. He does most everything possible to avoid inflating a very delicate evening of theatre - even Peter J. Davison's outsized living room set is an example of no-nonsense elegance, rather than extravagance - which means this is never a raucous outing, although it's a consistently honest and funny one.
The performances are similarly on-the-money and free of excess. Everett's effortlessly suave Charles assimilates even the most absurd happenings with a shrugging grace that is as unmistakably English as it is a symptom of his shock at having all his wildest nightmares come true. Atkinson is a marvelous Ruth, domineering yet feminine and likable, capable of releasing her mounting frustrations with the barely controlled sputter of a balloon emptying itself of air. Ebersole is charmingly ethereal as Elvira, often so vanishing into Martin Pakledinaz's colorless ecto-loungewear that she seems to materialize and drift about on drafts of air rather than just walk. Simon Jones, Deborah Rush, and Susan Louise O'Connor are fine, if unexceptional, in their fine if unexceptional supporting roles of a skeptical doctor, his wife, and the Condomines' hyperactive maid.
Then, of course, there's Lansbury. She's a dream of a Madame Arcati, sacrificing none the character's trademark dottiness but invariably keeping her grounded. Hers is one medium who also manages to be both rare and overdone at the same time, with breathless and scattered line deliveries and brain-bending incongruities in costume and movement that delight with their audaciousness. Yet for all her eccentricities, cultivated or not, Madame Arcati is a woman who nonetheless seems more comfortable and natural than the "ordinary" people who surround her.
Surely this is due, at least in part, to Lansbury's wide experience as a character actress of film and theatre. But it seems to extend deeper, all the way to the core of familiarity-baiting creativity that describes Lansbury's body of work as well as it does Madame Aracati's: Even if you think you're positive you know what she's going to do next, you can never be completely sure. It's thanks to the piquant professionalism of Lansbury, Blakemore, and the rest that the same is always true of this lively Blithe Spirit.