Angela Lansbury, Rupert Everett, Christine Ebersole, Jayne Atkinson, Simon Jones, Deborah Rush, Susan Louise OConnor
If fictional novelist Charles Condomine and his house seem a bit creaky, it’s not because the play they inhabit – Nol Coward’s Blithe Spirit – was first performed in New York over 65 years ago. Rather, it’s because of the presence of a ghost, that of Elvira, his ethereal first wife and the apparition referred to by the play’s title.
Coward’s comedy, which, like many of his plays, relies more on surface humor than anything deeper (it’s described in the published script as “an improbable farce”), floats on air in Michael Blakemore’s current Broadway revival, mostly thanks to sharp direction and a buoyant all-star cast headed by Angela Lansbury, Rupert Everett, Jayne Atkinson, and Christine Ebersole.
The set-up of the play is a clever one. Remarried widower novelist Charles Condomine (Everett) is conducting research for his next novel, a crime story centered around a crooked medium. He and his wife Ruth (Atkinson) invite a local spirit guide named Madame Arcati (Lansbury) to conduct a seance in their sitting room during a party with their friends Dr. and Mrs. Bradman, hoping for something amusing to include – some “tricks of the trade,” as Charles puts it.
Instead, however, the spirit of Charles’s late wife Elvira (Ebersole) appears to magnificent comic effect in the form of a meddling ghost that only he can see. A variety of comic antics ensue; as Ruth attempts to light a cigarette, Elvira blows it out. As the maid, Edith, turns off the phonograph, Elvira sets the record back in place. The remainder of the play focuses on the animosity between Ruth and Elvira, whose rivalry sets in motion a rousing, fractured love triangle that even Madame Arcati can’t seem to set right.
As Madame Arcati, stage legend Angela Lansbury dominates the evening. Bringing to the role the same dotty English sensibility she brought to the role of Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd,, Lansbury flits beady-eyed across the stage, dancing to traditional ditties as she works the crowd of skeptics in her midst.
The rest of the lead performers mostly deliver as well. Jayne Atkinson is dignified and impressive as straitlaced Ruth. Rupert Everett, whose handsome looks suit the role of Charles, delivers a charming, if strangely low-wattage, performance.
Even Christine Ebersole, miscast as not-of-this-world Elvira, still manages to make the most of her stage time as the meddling spirit at the center of the show, even if, as she’s voiced, Elvira seems more suited to the New York suburbs than to mid-century Kent.
Susan Louise O’Connor makes a memorable Broadway debut as Edith, the Condomines’ maid, whose fleet-footed service provides ample comic relief as she scurries through the entry hall on the way to greet guests only to be abruptly commanded to slow down, orders she begrudgingly obeys.
Director Blakemore, who last worked with Lansbury in 2007 on Terrence McNally’s flop Deuce, makes the most of his assembled cast. Each joke lands effortlessly, and the physical comedy is played with no sign of strain.
Though it’s unlikely to hold up another half century, lacking bitter core of The Vortex, another (more biting) Coward-penned play, Blithe Spirit is nonetheless frothy, swiftly-staged entertainment, particularly as well-paced as it is in this current production. It’s not so much that the play itself is dated as that there’s nothing much lurking beneath the writing’s surface level.
Fans of Lansbury or English drollery would be loath to miss out on the chance to catch this worthy revival, which, despite the anemia of Coward’s play, manages to enchant; those looking for something less, well, blithe, should stay away.