nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
March 18, 2009
(NOTE: If you are someone who seeks pure entertainment, skim no further! Buy your ticket now to see the new Broadway revival of Blithe Spirit and enjoy yourself. If, however, you are someone like me who wishes his every theatrical experience to be of earth-shattering importance, scroll on.)
A play at once delightful and utterly unsurprising, Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit centers around Charles Condomine, a widowed man whose second marriage is jeopardized by his first when an innocent little séance goes comically awry, bringing back the ghost of the saucy original Mrs. Charles Condomine, much to the irritation and exasperation of her more sensible replacement. Being something of a pathos-junkie, I tend to seek the dark aching heart of every dramatic work of art, relishing in particular the way comedy can cut so cleanly that we do not notice the pain (of our own mortality!) until well after its infliction. So what do I do with a play that is literally about life and death and is yet virtually pathos-free?
In his 1931 book, The Conquest of Happiness, the philosopher Bertrand Russell makes a very convincing case for his version of a good life, prescribing among other things what he calls the cultivation of "impersonal interests"—hobbies and pastimes that both distract us from our most personal preoccupations so that our unconscious can have a crack at coming up with solutions, and give us a reserve of life-enthusiasm in the event that the pillars of our central interests (romance, career, family, etc.) collapse before our very eyes. Seeing theatre like Blithe Spirit—particularly when it is being so excellent revived (so to speak)—is such an activity: gentle and rejuvenating.
The most obvious draw in Michael Blakemore's pitch-perfect production is Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati, the light-hearted, hard-working medium who is as gratified, as the Condomine's are dismayed, by her unexpected powers. Looking like an owl that has been stretched out vertically, dressed as a gypsy and then bludgeoned, Lansbury is flawlessly funny, shifting without warning from daft goof to savage wit and back again. Rupert Everett's Charles is the very essence of relaxed alarm—a charming nod to gravity with no disruption of wit. Christine Ebersole is iridescent in the oddly lackluster part of Charles's dead first wife, Elvira; it is a curious case of a mischievous ghost being the proverbial straight man. However, the interlude music—recordings of Ebersole singing Coward songs with Lawrence Yurman at the piano—makes the scene changes unusually pleasant.
Simon Jones and Deborah Rush, as Dr. and Mrs. Bradman, are quite good as such an unaffectedly normal middle-aged couple that they seem utterly foreign in the Condomine household. But it is the lady of the house and the maid that most captivated me. As Ruth, the second Mrs. Condomine, Jayne Atkinson is endlessly appealing in a role that could so easily be a stuffy old house-frau. Balancing seriousness with sass, Atkinson suggests a subtle sexual history beneath those smart matronly pantsuits, making Ruth a plausible antidote to the less self-governed Elvira who, in a more contemporary rendering, might attend meetings at an otherworldly annex of Sexual Compulsive's Anonymous. And finally, as Edith the maid—a young woman whose reaction to a broken teacup and a blasted civilization would be one and the same—the hilarious Susan Louise O'Connor is, even before the disembodied guest arrives, panic corporealized.
Noël Coward claimed in his autobiography to have tossed off Blithe Spirit in five days while on holiday in Portmeirion, a Mediterranean-flavored resort on the coast of Wales. The play is, of course, a terrific comedy, but I don't think he was bluffing. To enjoy a good production of this fret-free farce is to vicariously benefit from that little recuperative jaunt Noël took almost 70 years ago.