Reverence, whether it is of performers or athletes, is something I try not to overdo. But if there is one performer I can honestly say I revere, it is Angela Lansbury. When I was just a freshman in college, I saw her Tony-winning performance in the original production of Mame; over the years since, I've had the pleasure of seeing her other great stage performances, including Tony-winning roles in Dear World, Gypsy, and Sweeney Todd; I even saw her when she played Anna for three weeks in the late '70s revival of The King and I. Her stage work is legendary, and she is one of our true theatrical treasures. Happily, Ms. Lansbury is back on the boards once again, working with a high-quality cast in a revival of Noel Coward's 1941 drawing room comedy Blithe Spirit. I'm happy to report that the 83-year-old Ms. Lansbury continues to amaze and dazzle, turning the new production into another personal triumph.
I had never before seen a production of Blithe Spirit. The story is about a novelist living with his second wife; in order to do some research for a new book, he and his wife invite a medium to their house for a séance. The medium, Madame Arcati (Ms. Lansbury), ultimately conjures up the ghost of the author's first wife, and all sorts of mischief ensues from there.
Blithe Spirit is not a non-stop laugh-fest, and it probably isn't meant to be. But I enjoyed it very much. There are some very funny lines as well as some highly amusing situational humor, and I'm happy to have finally seen one of Coward's most famous works. The play is a bit long, and it definitely could be tighter. But overall, Blithe Spirit is a delightful confection, a bit of a soufflé -- light, tasty, and ultimately pleasing, even if there isn't a lot of weight there.
Lansbury's daffy, dotty, eccentric Madame Arcati is a total delight, and it is the perfect role for her. I loved the little dance she does several times in the play, whenever she is about to go into a trance, and her comic takes are just superb, showing she still has great comic skills and timing. There is definitely a little bit of Mrs. Lovett from Sweeney Todd in her look and performance, and that works fine. She remains a treasure, and it is wonderful to have her back on Broadway again, still delivering a totally winning performance. She received exit applause after every scene she did, which I don't recall ever seeing. There has been some talk that she struggled a bit with some of her lines. At the performance I saw, I never worried that she was about to go up on a line; whatever hesitancy there was seemed to be in character, and she handled it all quite well.
Lansbury is not the only attraction in this revival. Jayne Atkinson was a treat as the novelist's second wife, and her performance builds as the show goes on. As the ghost of the first wife, Christine Ebersole brings a real playfulness to the role, and it is fun to watch her glide across the stage in a flowing white gown. Rupert Everett makes his Broadway debut as the novelist; it is the least showy role, but he is properly suave and does strong work, providing a commanding figure and the right presence. Susan O'Connor almost steals the show with some very funny moments as the servant, Edith.
Director Michael Blakemore is an expert at farce and does a good job establishing the right tone and keeping the proceedings moving at a reasonably rapid pace. Blithe Spirit may not be a great play or a great evening, but the mix of Coward's often witty and frothy play with a distinguished cast and the presence of the legendary Lansbury make for a fun and highly entertaining theatrical event. - James Miller
Blithe Spirit is at The Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44th Street
Mr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.