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Blithe Spirit

Angela Lansbury gives a side-splitting performance as Madame Arcati in Michael Blakemore's near-perfect revival of Noel Coward's world-class comedy.

Jayne Atkinson and Angela Lansbury in Blithe Spirit
(© Robert J. Saferstein)
There are abundant reasons for racing to top-drawer director Michael Blakemore's just-about-perfect revival of Noel Coward's 1941 boulevard-comedy trifle Blithe Spirit, now at Broadway's Shubert Theatre, but the chief attraction is definitely Angela Lansbury's side-splitting performance as the zany medium Madame Arcati.

Arcati arrives at the invitation of English author Charles Condomine (Rupert Everett), who is doing research for a new book. But he and his sensible second wife Ruth (Jayne Atkinson) are tested to the end of their short tethers when his deceased first wife Elvira (Christine Ebersole) returns home as the result of a volatile séance conducted by Arcati.

Lansbury -- who's played dotty women in Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd and Jerry Herman's Dear World -- is no stranger at portraying extreme European eccentricity, and she's as effective as ever, perhaps even more so. Her kohl-rimmed eyes popping like a kewpie-doll's and garbed in bizarre outfits designed for laughs by Martin Pakledinaz, Lansbury does so much with the daft yet no-nonsense Madame Arcati that when she's onstage -- only for three lengthy scenes -- every expression and every wave of an arm is a comic gem. And watching Lansbury prepare to go into a trance -- which for her means going into a dance -- is the biggest bon-bon Broadway audiences are being offered at the moment.

There are no slouches either among the other actors populating the high-ceiled country drawing-room that Peter J. Davison has designed with the casual elegance that was so often Coward's stock-in-trade. Everett, tall and sharp-nosed and wearing evening clothes as if born in them, flings Condomine's sophisticated upper-class-male utterances with aplomb until Condomine himself is thrown by taunting Elvira.

As the women in his life, Ebersole -- another expert at on-stage flightiness -- sees Elvira's calculated ditziness as sounding and looking like Marilyn Monroe in the footage from her uncompleted film, Something's Got To Give. (Wigmaker Paul Huntley happily colludes in the appearance and Pakledinaz obliges with a diaphanous gown featuring sleeves down to there that ripple whenever Ebersole moves.) Atkinson has a less showy role as the at first baffled and eventually frustrated Ruth, but she hardly allows herself to fade into the fancy woodwork. Incidentally, she astutely revives the one-arm-akimbo posture that women assumed back in that day but have long since abandoned.

The reliable Simon Jones and Deborah Rush as Doctor and Mrs. Bradford, the neighboring couple invited to participate in the unfortunate supernatural foray, provide lovely support. Getting the laughs Coward inserted in the script and some that Blakemore has added is Susan Louise O'Connor as dim-witted maid Edith, who does everything on the run. Indeed, there's a sight gag involving Edith, a silver tray laden with crockery, and a Chippendale chair that rates as world-class comedy contrivance -- which is only fitting for such a world-class comedy as Blithe Spirit.


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