Coward's "Blithe" charms in spirited revival

Mon Mar 16, 2009 5:42pm EDT
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By Frank Scheck

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Old-fashioned in the best sense, the new Broadway revival of "Blithe Spirit" will have theatergoers thinking they've entered a time machine and traveled back to 1940s London. This charming production of Noel Coward's durable 1941 comedy features a sterling cast expertly performing under the direction of master farceur Michael Blakemore ("Noises Off"), and the results are delightful.

Yes, a little patience is required, as Coward's three-act comedy (here compressed into two) is overlong and features quaint humor that isn't quite as biting as one remembers. And it's certainly true that "Spirit," not seen on Broadway in more than 20 years, lacks the sharp pacing and acerbic wit of such Coward classics as "Private Lives" and "Present Laughter."

Yet the tale of a pesky poltergeist still packs plenty of fun. The story centers on the spectral reappearance of Elvira (Christine Ebersole), the long-dead first wife of upper-crust novelist Charles (Rupert Everett), now happily married to Ruth (Jayne Atkinson). Brought back from the great beyond by eccentric elderly medium Madame Arcati (Angela Lansbury, still going strong at 83), Elvira is determined to wreak marital havoc and resume her rightful place in Charles' life.

From the projections announcing the title and scene descriptions to the classic songs by Coward and Irving Berlin (sung by Ebersole, doing double duty) played during the scene changes to the wonderfully elegant scenery and costumes, the production classily harks back to an earlier theatrical era.

Everett, making his Broadway debut, seemingly was born to play Charles, cutting a dashing figure with his regal bearing and chiseled handsomeness. Here he personifies British reserve, reacting to the surrounding nuttiness with a deadpan coolness that is effortlessly amusing.

Ebersole, looking glam with her frosted blond hair, ethereal makeup and flowing white dress, is a charmingly lovely ghost, entertainingly conveying Elvira's naughty impishness. Atkinson is deliciously funny as the beleaguered Ruth, and Lansbury is consistently hilarious as Arcati, milking as many laughs from her quizzical facial expressions as her lines.

Simon Jones and Deborah Rush are fine, if underutilized, in their minor roles, and Susan Louise O'Connor, as the hapless maid, nearly steals the show with her slapstick physical comedy.

Blakemore has staged the work for maximum comic effect, creating endless inspired bits of business for the performers to do that produce unexpected laughs. Somebody find another comedy for this man to direct, fast.

<p>Director Michael Blakemore holds up The American Theatre Wing's 2000 Tony Awards for Best Direction of a Play and for Best Direction of a Musical at the Tony Awards show at New York's Radio City Music Hall, June 4, 2000. REUTERS/Brad Rickerby</p>