Saturday, March 21, 2009

Present Laughter

Blithe Spirit
Written by Noel Coward
Directed by Michael Blakemore
Starring Jayne Atkinson, Christine Ebersole, Rupert Everett, Angela Lansbury, Simon Jones, Deborah Rush

Performances February 26-July 19, 2009
Schubert Theater
225 West 44th Street

Lansbury (center) in Blithe Spirit
Noel Coward’s ghostly comedy, Blithe Spirit, has been brought back to Broadway after a too-long absence. This thoroughly enjoyable revival has been splendidly staged by one of our expert directors, Michael Blakemore, who has sensibly cast the play with four actors—Rupert Everett, Jayne Atkinson, Christine Ebersole and the redoubtable Angela Lansbury—who bring the precision and rhythm Coward’s dialogue at its best calls for.

Blithe Spirit is set in the home of the Condomines, an upper-crust, middle-aged couple who have decided to host a séance so that skeptical husband Charles can gather material about the occult for his new novel. When the madcap medium, Madame Arcardi, arrives, she gives them more than they bargained for by conjuring up the ghost of Charles’ lovely young first wife, Elvira, who begins haunting her former husband (only he can see her) and making mischief at the expense of his current wife, Ruth.

Coward’s comedy may be fluff, but of an extremely rarefied kind: no one could so effortlessly create such cultured characters and put them through their increasingly perplexing paces than Coward, and 1941’s Blithe Spirit comes at the close of the decade when he wrote his very finest plays, Private Lives, Design for Living, and Present Laughter.

In his new production, Blakemore keeps the pace swift but not overtly farcical, which is the crucial reason for its success. For example, the hilariously inefficient maid is enacted with what could be described as poised silliness by Susan Louise O’Connor—just watch how, after clearing off the breakfast table, she tries a nearly impossible move to pick up the full tray, and you’ll see the sign of an imaginative director at the top of his game.

The principal quartet is unerringly fine. Rupert Everett’s Charles, all refined bluster, rarely loses his British formality even when faced with the surprise return of his dead wife. Jayne Atkinson skillfully anchors the proceedings as Ruth, the sensible second wife who may have inadvertently put the wheels in motion for Elvira’s return by asking Charles about her before the séance. As the ghostly Elvira, Christine Ebersole barks out the increasingly sarcastic and fatigued spirit’s dialogue to deliciously comic effect. And 83-year-old Angela Lansbury plays Madame Arcadi with such glee that her good vibes extend to the audience: her every line hits with direct and potent force, and her stuttering dance moves during the séance could fit in alongside the Bangles in that cheesy “Walk like an Egyptian” video.

Add Brian MacDevitt’s dazzling lighting, Peter J. Davison’s sturdily handsome set and Martin Pakledinaz’s elegant costumes, and you have a most spirited, even buoyant revival.

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