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THEATER REVIEW | 'BLITHE SPIRIT'

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The Medium as the Messenger

Published: March 16, 2009

There is no choreographer listed among the credits for the genial but bumpy new revival of Noël Coward’s “Blithe Spirit,” which opened Sunday night at the Shubert Theater. Yet for pure originality and expressiveness, it’s hard to imagine any Broadway chorus line topping the solo dances performed here by an 83-year-old woman with a superfluity of bad jewelry, the gait of a gazelle and a repertory of poses that bring to mind Egyptian hieroglyphs.

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Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Vivacious summoner: Angela Lansbury, seated, with, from left, Jayne Atkinson, Christine Ebersole and Rupert Everett in Noël Coward’s “Blithe Spirit.”

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Visitor from beyond: Christine Ebersole, center, with Jayne Atkinson and Rupert Everett in “Blithe Spirit,” at the Shubert Theater.

That’s Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati, a very self-serious medium on the prowl for vibrations from the spirit world. And when Madame Arcati feels vibrations, she vibrates — sometimes like a tuning fork, sometimes like wind chimes in a monsoon. As for those little neo-Nijinsky dances, they are Madame Arcati’s method for making herself receptive for the arrival of errant ectoplasms. Were I a ghost, I would definitely make a point of revisiting the dreary world whenever this rare medium dances.

Those of you who are still among the living have the chance to witness this uncanny apparition simply by buying a ticket. And you shouldn’t feel shortchanged by Michael Blakemore’s production — which also stars Christine Ebersole, Jayne Atkinson and, in a solid Broadway debut, Rupert Everett — even if it still has a way to go before it finds its fleet feet.

Coward’s “improbable farce” of 1941 about connubial love and hisses from beyond the grave is not, despite its subject, an immortal work. Written during an awe-inspiringly brief period of six days, “Blithe Spirit” concerns the haunting of one Charles Condomine (Mr. Everett), a suave Cowardesque novelist, by the ghost of his “morally untidy” first wife, Elvira (Ms. Ebersole), who turns Charles’s staid marriage to the priggish Ruth (Ms. Atkinson) into a prickly ménage à trois. Like Coward’s deeper-reaching “Private Lives,” “Blithe Spirit” considers a theme close to its writer’s heart: the disruptive force of sexual passion, as it brings out the beast in the seemingly genteel.

But while “Private Lives” has real emotional fire, which emanates from its unhappily in love characters, the comedy in “Blithe Spirit” is situational. “There’s no heart in the play,” Coward said. “If there was a heart, it would be a sad story.”

Putting heart aside, Coward constructed a highly efficient laugh machine, sheathed in the satiny sophistication his audiences expected of him. (The show ran for 1,997 performances in wartime London.) Mechanical comedies creak as they age, and “Blithe Spirit” is no exception. But if it is perfectly paced, it can still keep an audience in a state of tickled contentment.

Mr. Blakemore’s production is not, at this point, perfectly paced, which is surprising given that this Australian director is the man who originally whipped Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off,” that most frantic of backstage comedies, so expertly through its complicated maneuvers.

As designed by Peter J. Davison (set) and Martin Pakledinaz (costumes) “Blithe Spirit” has the comforting luxuriousness you associate with a Coward play. (The production emphasizes the quaint historical distance of it all by prefacing each scene with arch place-setting title cards.) But on the night I saw it, the leading performers seemed slow in picking up their cues. The rabbit-out-of-a-hat scene closers never landed firmly. And there’s no denying that the red-blooded Ms. Ebersole, as delectable as she looks here, was not born to play the ethereal Elvira.

Yet despite such shortcomings I wound up enjoying this “Blithe Spirit” more than I had many a slicker version. Much of that pleasure came from watching what Ms. Atkinson, Mr. Everett and particularly Ms. Lansbury make of their roles. If “Blithe Spirit” itself misses comic greatness, Coward did create a genuinely great comic character in Madame Arcati, and Ms. Lansbury gleefully makes it her own.

Madame Arcati is a professional spirit summoner whom Charles invites to a dinner party (Simon Jones and Deborah Rush play the other, more conventional guests), partly in sport and partly by way of research for a mystery novel. Like Charles we initially see her as merely ridiculous, and with the frizzy red wig and Bohemia-meets-Girl-Guide attire, Ms. Lansbury’s very look invites laughs.

But like Margaret Rutherford, who created the role onstage and on screen, Ms. Lansbury insists we know that Madame Arcati truly believes in her mystical powers. As she sniffs the air for the scent of ectoplasm or encourages everyone to “really put our backs” into a séance, her deep-dyed conviction and rattled dignity make her all the funnier.

It also makes the cynical, flippant people around her seem rather shallow. Whether Coward intended it or not, she’s a walking reproof to those who would live their lives unexamined.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: March 24, 2009
A theater review on March 16 about “Blithe Spirit,” at the Shubert Theater, misidentified the nationality of the director, Michael Blakemore. While he has worked extensively in Britain, he is Australian, not British.

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