I bumped into two guys on the subway right after seeing the matinee of Blithe Spirit and asked how they liked the production. One said he liked it. The other said he was ï¿½whelmed.ï¿½ Not overwhelmed or underwhelmed. Just whelmed.
Blithe Spirit, which takes its title from Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem "To a Skylark" ("Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! Bird thou never wert") is the story of Charles Condomine (Rupert Everett), whose wife comes back from the dead not only to haunt him but to have a crack at taking him with her. It is set in 1941 in the English Countryside without a Blitz or a bomb to be heard. Charles is a successful author in pursuit of research for a new novel, and the local odd person and elf professed medium in the form of Madame Arcati (Angela Lansbury) fits the bill. He invites Arcati to dinner with friends and requests a post-dinner sï¿½ance. When the call is put out to the other side, Elvira (Christine Ebersole), Charlesï¿½ former and very dead wife, answers it. The rest of the play is devoted to what remedy Charles can take to make his wife Ruth (Jane Atkinson), believe him and his ex-wife behave.
The production begins well enough with a lovely bit of business involving a tray of liquor and Edith, (Susan Louise Oï¿½Connor) the good intentioned maid, who repeats her one note of dizzying simplicity throughout the evening to everyoneï¿½s delight. There follows a scene with our feature couple in which their relationship is set up as one that has achieved a certain settled quality after five years. In this scene, as well as the introduction of the subject of Elvira, there is much fuss about the ice bucket that Edith manages to produce without breaking it or the cubes. Once it appears, however, Charles never uses the ice. He makes several martiniï¿½s over the next 30 or so minutes, and not only does the ice stay in the bucket, the vermouth is sloshed into the shaker with such a liberal hand that were Mr. Everett to present one of these concoctions to me, charming man that he is no matter, I would chuck it into the nearest potted plant.
So yeah, yeah, you might say ï¿½ whatï¿½s the big deal about a mismanaged piece of business? The big deal is that Coward depends on these little pieces to put together the whole, and when one goes awry, the rest are sure to follow.
For instance, when Elvira, (Christine Ebersole) the blithe spirit about whom we have heard so much, materializes in ghost form, the cast goes about ï¿½not seeingï¿½ her with such an obvious effort you can hear the director saying ï¿½donï¿½t LOOK at herï¿½. They become stiff and self-conscious as they look everywhere BUT at or through Elvira. And Mr. Everettï¿½s moment of discovery ï¿½ critical to the pacing of the play ï¿½ is clumsy at best.
Ms. Lansbury is the only one wearing a microphone, which makes her voice oddly odd. Her makeup is reminiscent Mrs. Lovett in the 1979 Sweeny Todd and gives her the appearance of a clown. Augmentation is hardly necessary for Madam Arcati because she is marching to the tune of her own drummer, as is Lansbury. She should have been left to her own devices.
In fact, Madame Arcati truly is the only person of substance, other than the forlorn Edith, to be seen for miles. The Condomines are clever but set so deep in their moss covered rut that the entrance of Elvira into their lives is shattering. This is the Coward sort of shattering, however, and the dialogue is rapier. One liners turn into tirades that pirouette and pounce. Everett and Atkins carry most of these scenes, but they are not consistent in their connection to one another. Christine Ebersole (who may be the unacknowledged vocalist in the entre-acts) has some lovely moments in the second act as the walls begin to close in on Elvira, but more often her lines are delivered as if she werenï¿½t certain of the cue. Ms. Lansbury also had some challenging moments with her lines, but was able to finesse the moments into character bits.
The scenes that achieve the best crackle are limited to those where the two wives are present and Charles is the only one who can hear both. The actors have no time to think and must hand off lines to each other like a vaudevillian team. This they handle very well.
You know, there are off nights at the theatre. There just are, and there is nothing to be done about it. People are such complicated beings, and no matter the intention, sometimes we falter. The one who never falters in the production of Blithe Spirit is Noel Coward. And it is surprising that with such a steady guide, the director and cast could not come up to meet him. The uneven pacing of the evening is like a weight that drags the forward movement off course. Mr. Blakemore may have taken the opening stage note too literally: ï¿½It is eight oï¿½clock on a summer evening. There is a wood fire burning because it is an English Summer evening.ï¿½ Somehow Blakemore has managed to create a production of Coward that is a little too warm and bordering on soggy.
Like the perfect martini that never saw the light of day in the production, Coward should be served chilled and very, very dry.
If you want to conjure up a great night of theater, think Angela Lansbury as the eccentric Mme. Arcati in Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit." Dressed in a velvet dress bestrewn with signs of the zodiac, carrying a carpetbag worthy of Mary Poppins, Mme. Arcati enters the lives of Charles and Ruth Condomine, and using her abilities to communicate with the Other Side, assures that their lives will never be the same.
In an over-the-top performance, Lansbury shows us just how much fun an octogenarian can have onstage. Needing the skills of a medium, Charles invited Mme. Arcati to a dinner party, ostensibly to conduct a sï¿½ance (as far as she knows), but actually to be the subject of research so this mystery writer could gather material for his next book.
Conducting a sï¿½ance, however, proves to be risky business. Sporting a red wig with earmuff braids on either side, this dizzy-looking dame performs her zany rituals and dances around the stage before falling into the trance that brings back Charles' first wife, the lovely Elvira, instantly making Charles an "astral bigamist."
With grace, beauty and passion transcending from the Great Beyond, Elvira is everything the bossy current wife, Ruth, is not. Draped in flowing chiffon, a sharp contrast to Ruth's button-to-the-neck jacket and sensible shoes, Christine Ebersole plays Elvira with vixen-like charm as she glides through the French doors to crash the party.
Charles, who has been dominated by women all his life, must now figure out how to handle the ghost who excites him more than Ruth ever did. Nonetheless, Charles is distressed at her appearance at this inopportune time, and tells her in an ongoing argument to leave, shut up, stop her bad behavior -- remarks, which Ruth believes are directed at her.
Of course, not being able to see or hear Elvira, Ruth thinks Charles is has snapped, and it is only when Elvira threatens to hit Ruth with a chair that she is convinced Elvira is in the room. Though the action onstage is deadly serious, so to speak, we are laughing hysterically.
Elvira, it seems, has put herself on some ethereal waiting list so she could return to the real world and bring Charles back with her. Not being bound by the legal system anymore, Elvira is free to put a plan into action with impunity, and her plan is to arrange an unfortunate accident for Charles. Only things don't quite work out that way.
Mme. Arcarti is called back to fix things, but first she must find out who wanted Elvira here in the first place. No, not the butler. The maid did it. In a quirky performance that adds to the play's hilarity, Susan Louise Oï¿½Connor gives the nervous Edith real personality. Whether sheï¿½s bent over a chair trying to life a tray, or scurrying self-consciously to answer the door, Edith proves one of the axioms of theater: there are no small parts.
Rupert Everett makes a stunning Charles, but Jayne Atkinson looks a bit old to play his wife. One wonders why this heartthrob would have chosen a woman like her in the first place. Lansbury, however, steals the show. One can imagine the director saying to her: "Now Angela, when you put out the lights, I want you to do it by dancing around the stage. Do it however you want." And she does. One can also imagine that she probably changes her dance every night.
All in all, this is an entertaining night out in the theater. Even if a couple of the scenes are bogged down with too much exposition, director Michael Blakemore has captured the essence of Cowardï¿½s 1945 drawing-room comedy, and the stellar cast delivers first-rate performances.
In todayï¿½s world, the timing of the revival of "Blithe Spirit" is just as profound as it was in Coward's day. For us, it's a needed break from the gloomy financial news that bombards us on a daily basis, "Blithe Spirit" will definitely lift yours.
Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus
What the press had to say.....
"If ï¿½Blithe Spiritï¿½ itself misses comic greatness, Coward did create a genuinely great comic character in Madame Arcati, and Ms. Lansbury gleefully makes it her own."
New York Times
"though the cast speaks the authorï¿½s zingers with efficiency, the play doesnï¿½t fizz like this champagne should."
New York Daily News
"While the star (Lansbury) 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 match her unpredictable anarchy."
New York Post
"When a scintillating comedy, masterly direction and superior performances come together, what have you got? A rip-roaring revival"
"sweet and affectionate, if oddly cartoony and clunky, revival"
"If theatregoers came for Lansbury, they'll stay for Coward, as smartly directed by Michael Blakemore."
"The main ingredient this "Blithe Spirit" lacks is a true, unfettered sense of merriment."
"it's frightfully funny"
Time Out NY
"delivers the goods, artfully keeping the classic Noel Coward comedy spinning merrily "
"classy but stiff Broadway revival"