At this point in her career, Angela Lansbury's approach to the stage is that of a jazz virtuoso: She may not always stick to the written score, but somehow the music comes out just fine.
Like her character, daffy medium Madame Arcati, Lansbury creates mischievous chaos in "Blithe Spirit" - some of her co-stars seem to struggle to keep pace with her somewhat loose M.O.
But while the star almost never delivers a line exactly the way Noel Coward wrote it, she trades precision for zaniness. Few other things in this placid production by Michael Blakemore ("Copenhagen," "Kiss Me, Kate") match her unpredictable anarchy.
"Blithe Spirit," from 1941, is one of Coward's most plotted efforts, and it's Madame Arcati who unwittingly starts the engine. During a séance she holds for writer Charles Condomine (Rupert Everett) and his wife, Ruth (Jayne Atkinson), Charles' late first spouse, Elvira (Christine Ebersole), is suddenly summoned back from the netherworld. The thing is, only Charles can see her.
High jinks and bon mots ensue as he becomes, in Ruth's words, "a sort of astral bigamist."
Except that there are so few sparks between Charles and his wives that too often the premise plays like the case of an overgrown son cornered by two nagging mothers rather than a man literally haunted by a lost love.
Ebersole (who also sings the vintage tunes piped in during the pace-killing scene changes) has a few moments. Mostly, though, she elegantly floats across the set in Martin Pakledinaz's atmospheric pearl-gray "ghostly" gown.
As for Everett, he's always been at ease with epigrammatic writing: Zingers smoothly flow out of his perpetually downturned mouth, and his narcissism only enhances the delivery.
Here, however, physical comedy is also required, and Everett comes up short.
His classical profile, preternaturally smooth brow, elegant bearing and utter lack of expressiveness are assets useful in a Roman statue, much less so in an actor. (I found myself daydreaming about Kelsey Grammer, a master of harried sophistication, in the part.)
Even Everett's famous charm seems tapped out. At one point, Elvira says that, just before coming back to Earth, she was playing backgammon with Genghis Khan. Now that sounds like more fun than haunting a bore such as Charles!
Director Blakemore should genuflect daily to Lansbury and Atkinson, who really save his bacon. Where Lansbury flies by the seat of her flapper skirt, Atkinson is an exemplar of control.
As the only person behaving like a responsible adult, Ruth risked being no more than a foil for the others. But Atkinson's performance is never less than wonderfully comic and evocatively shaded. Her stiff upper lip, for instance, which signals contented restraint at the beginning, morphs to a mask barely concealing wounded pride and growing rage by the end.
If only the other two points of the triangle had been as sharp.
There is no choreographer listed among the credits for the genial but bumpy new revival of Noël Coward’s “Blithe Spirit,” which opened Sunday night at the Shubert Theater. Yet for pure originality and expressiveness, it’s hard to imagine any Broadway chorus line topping the solo dances performed here by an 83-year-old woman with a superfluity of bad jewelry, the gait of a gazelle and a repertory of poses that bring to mind Egyptian hieroglyphs.
That’s Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati, a very self-serious medium on the prowl for vibrations from the spirit world. And when Madame Arcati feels vibrations, she vibrates — sometimes like a tuning fork, sometimes like wind chimes in a monsoon. As for those little neo-Nijinsky dances, they are Madame Arcati’s method for making herself receptive for the arrival of errant ectoplasms. Were I a ghost, I would definitely make a point of revisiting the dreary world whenever this rare medium dances.
Those of you who are still among the living have the chance to witness this uncanny apparition simply by buying a ticket. And you shouldn’t feel shortchanged by Michael Blakemore’s production — which also stars Christine Ebersole, Jayne Atkinson and, in a solid Broadway debut, Rupert Everett — even if it still has a way to go before it finds its fleet feet.
Coward’s “improbable farce” of 1941 about connubial love and hisses from beyond the grave is not, despite its subject, an immortal work. Written during an awe-inspiringly brief period of six days, “Blithe Spirit” concerns the haunting of one Charles Condomine (Mr. Everett), a suave Cowardesque novelist, by the ghost of his “morally untidy” first wife, Elvira (Ms. Ebersole), who turns Charles’s staid marriage to the priggish Ruth (Ms. Atkinson) into a prickly ménage à trois. Like Coward’s deeper-reaching “Private Lives,” “Blithe Spirit” considers a theme close to its writer’s heart: the disruptive force of sexual passion, as it brings out the beast in the seemingly genteel.
But while “Private Lives” has real emotional fire, which emanates from its unhappily in love characters, the comedy in “Blithe Spirit” is situational. “There’s no heart in the play,” Coward said. “If there was a heart, it would be a sad story.”
Putting heart aside, Coward constructed a highly efficient laugh machine, sheathed in the satiny sophistication his audiences expected of him. (The show ran for 1,997 performances in wartime London.) Mechanical comedies creak as they age, and “Blithe Spirit” is no exception. But if it is perfectly paced, it can still keep an audience in a state of tickled contentment.
Mr. Blakemore’s production is not, at this point, perfectly paced, which is surprising given that this Australian director is the man who originally whipped Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off,” that most frantic of backstage comedies, so expertly through its complicated maneuvers.
As designed by Peter J. Davison (set) and Martin Pakledinaz (costumes) “Blithe Spirit” has the comforting luxuriousness you associate with a Coward play. (The production emphasizes the quaint historical distance of it all by prefacing each scene with arch place-setting title cards.) But on the night I saw it, the leading performers seemed slow in picking up their cues. The rabbit-out-of-a-hat scene closers never landed firmly. And there’s no denying that the red-blooded Ms. Ebersole, as delectable as she looks here, was not born to play the ethereal Elvira.
Yet despite such shortcomings I wound up enjoying this “Blithe Spirit” more than I had many a slicker version. Much of that pleasure came from watching what Ms. Atkinson, Mr. Everett and particularly Ms. Lansbury make of their roles. If “Blithe Spirit” itself misses comic greatness, Coward did create a genuinely great comic character in Madame Arcati, and Ms. Lansbury gleefully makes it her own.
Madame Arcati is a professional spirit summoner whom Charles invites to a dinner party (Simon Jones and Deborah Rush play the other, more conventional guests), partly in sport and partly by way of research for a mystery novel. Like Charles we initially see her as merely ridiculous, and with the frizzy red wig and Bohemia-meets-Girl-Guide attire, Ms. Lansbury’s very look invites laughs.
But like Margaret Rutherford, who created the role onstage and on screen, Ms. Lansbury insists we know that Madame Arcati truly believes in her mystical powers. As she sniffs the air for the scent of ectoplasm or encourages everyone to “really put our backs” into a séance, her deep-dyed conviction and rattled dignity make her all the funnier.
It also makes the cynical, flippant people around her seem rather shallow. Whether Coward intended it or not, she’s a walking reproof to those who would live their lives unexamined.
Mr. Everett does shallow splendidly, and even finds a few teasing currents of depth in the dapperer-than-thou Charles. Best known here for films (“My Best Friend’s Wedding,” “Shakespeare in Love”), he played the decadent, self-destructive drug addict in Coward’s “Vortex” (in London in 1989), a youth old before his time.
Here he brings out the boy in the middle-aged Charles, a childish charmer who expects women to organize his life and indulge his demands. There is always a bit of this petulant creature in Coward’s comic heroes, but Mr. Everett presents it with candid clarity, while never breaking the brittle, bantering rhythms of Cowardspeak.
As Elvira, Ms. Ebersole, the brilliant star of “Grey Gardens,” has an enchanting devilish side glance, and she’s sometimes very funny. But her physical robustness and pinched delivery make her seem more of this world than Elvira should be. Ms. Atkinson (on Broadway in “The Rainmaker” and “Enchanted April”) is, as always, excellent, and she doesn’t flinch from locating the insufferably class-conscious soul of Ruth. Susan Louise O’Connor is a delightfully polished screwball in the small but crucial role of an inept maid.
But it’s Madame Arcati who walks — or rather dances — away with the show, as she has always been wont to do. Those who know Ms. Lansbury only as the bland, level-headed Jessica Fletcher of television’s “Murder, She Wrote” may not be aware of this actress’s depth and variety of technique. Ms. Lansbury brings seven decades of experience with her — in work ranging from fabled musicals (“Mame,” “Sweeney Todd’”) to classic dark films (“Gaslight,” “The Manchurian Candidate”) — to the role of Madame Arcati, her juiciest in years. Even when she’s off her lines, she’s on top of her character, and she demonstrates how an expert can turn surface silliness into something of real substance.
“Amateur,” Madame Arcati says, drawing her scattered self into regal rigidity, “is a word I cannot tolerate.” That is certainly not an epithet that anyone would dare attach to Ms. Lansbury.
While the dry martinis flow freely among hosts and guests alike in "Blithe Spirit," those libations do little to loosen up Michael Blakemore's classy but stiff Broadway revival. There are sparkling moments, thanks mostly to the light touch of the sublime Jayne Atkinson and the comedic life-force of Angela Lansbury because she's, well, Angela Lansbury. But overall this is a wispy ectoplasm of the 1941 Noel Coward ghost comedy rather than a full-bodied materialization.
Blakemore seemed a natural choice to reanimate Coward's "improbable farce." The Brit director staged Michael Frayn's clever deconstruction of the genre, "Noises Off," to great acclaim, and even succeeded in whipping the minor Mark Twain rediscovery "Is He Dead?" into a delicious froth. But the agility with which the gags and witticisms ricocheted around the stage in those productions is absent in this flat outing. And without brio, speed and buoyancy, "Blithe Spirit" can seem a creaky vehicle compared to the sturdier comic frame of a play like "Hay Fever."
What's also missing is a unified ensemble. Aside from Deborah Rush as a frequent visitor, who wrestles laboriously and loses the fight with a posh accent and lisp, the actors mostly do creditable work. But there's not much connecting them.
Playing Coward well requires actors to bounce off each other while effortlessly inhabiting the playwright's rarefied world of barbed gentility. Here, the timing is almost always a fraction off, and the performances too studied. Not only does the verbal interplay lose its fizz, but the production sacrifices the hints of substance below the surface of this comedy about death and an "astral bigamist" with no understanding of women.
As upper-class English novelist Charles Condomine, Rupert Everett certainly looks the part, swanning around Peter J. Davison's buttery living-room set as if he were born in a tux, led by his almost comically chiseled chin. Ostensibly as research for a book about a spirit medium, Charles and his elegant second wife Ruth (Atkinson) invite local psychic Madame Arcati (Lansbury) over for cocktails, dinner and a seance. But that session inadvertently summons the ghost of Charles' first wife Elvira (Christine Ebersole), resulting in a tug-of-love for his affections between earthbound and ethereal rivals.
Ebersole looks smashing in her platinum curls and Martin Pakledinaz's spectral chiffon gown, allowing her to billow into the room as if materializing out of the drapes. But she's miscast and a tad too mature to get away with the character's antics. (Shouldn't Elvira have the edge of youth over Ruth?) The late Mrs. Condomine is selfish, petulant, mischievous and manipulative, characteristics that are unbecoming on most women over a certain age. Despite some funny line readings and the occasional droll bit of physical comedy, Ebersole makes her a more brittle than blithe spirit.
The performances of Everett and Ebersole both seem too self-regarding to oil the comedy. Everett deploys his natural vanity and hauteur well, tossing off quips with understated relish, but he blurs the line between the character's languor and the actor's low energy. There's no real chemistry between Charles and either wife.
The only one of the principals fully sparking off her co-stars is Atkinson, who reacts to what's going on around her, not just to herself. Whether Ruth is making bone-dry observations about the handling of domestic staff or dismissing the likelihood of finding anything interesting in the Times, the actress hints at what this production might have been with a more in-sync cast and snappier direction. Atkinson's scene alone with Lansbury is arguably the best here. The dynamic created by pairing Ruth's poised pragmatism with Madame Arcati's dotty sincerity injects a spontaneity that's missing elsewhere, and fleetingly summons the urgent reality behind the busy comic machinations.
Ranking up there with koalas and kittens, Lansbury is among the most beloved creatures on the planet, and it's clear from her rapturous entrance applause the audience wouldn't care if she just sat there. Which she certainly doesn't.
Garbed in flamboyant urban gypsy-wear and sporting a pair of braided bagels on either side of her head, she channels Mrs. Lovett, Dame Edna and perhaps a little Hyacinth Bucket, her wonderfully dithery mannerisms and extravagant gestures even covering for the occasional line flub. Her double-takes are priceless, particularly when Arcati thinks her authenticity is being questioned. And watching the 83-year-old stage and screen vet limber up before communing with the dead, or lurch into her goofy conjuring dance is a blissful experience.
Susan Louise O'Connor also contributes some daffy shtick as the Condomines' maladroit maid.
But there's not much else that's fresh or adventurous in Blakemore's by-the-numbers production, which becomes increasingly tiresome as the play stretches on and on and the laughs grow sparse. And while it's a pleasure to hear Ebersole's vocals on some Coward standards and Irving Berlin's "Always" between scenes, those long pauses, with stage directions projected onto a black curtain, manage to slow down what little momentum gets going.