Friday, March 20, 2009

Blithe Spirit at the Shubert Theatre

From left: Jayne Atkinson, Rupert Everett, Angela Lansbury, Christine Ebersole.
Directed by Michael Blakemore.

Noël Coward’s 1941 play “Blithe Spirit” was written in seven days in reaction to the “pitiful sight” of London’s wartime devastation. It played 1,998 performances, one of the longest runs in London theatre history. Coward’s brilliant ghost play explores the connections between memory, mourning, and the erotic; it’s a comic demonstration in which the dead’s aggression toward the living confronts the aggression of the living toward the dead.

The novelist Charles Condomine (Rupert Everett) has arranged a séance, as research for a murder mystery he’s working on. In a posh drawing room that’s as proper and sedate as Charles’s sturdy second wife, Ruth (Jayne Atkinson), Madame Arcati (Angela Lansbury), the Martini-guzzling, Irving Berlin-loving local spiritualist, accidently conjures up his late first wife, Elvira (Christine Ebersole). Charles’s second marriage is a comfortable, sensible relationship – “Not the wildest stretch of imagination could describe it as the first fine careless rapture,” Ruth says. When the exciting and possessive Elvira materializes, in a sort of ghostly off-white chiffon poncho, she is a vision of long-mourned passion. She reminds Charles that he once beat her with a billiard cue. “Only very, very gently,” he replies. Charles can see and talk to Elvira; Ruth can do neither. Charles sees the memory of love; Ruth sees an apparent lunatic. The unconscious, in all its wayward self-destructiveness, has been released. Fiasco naturally ensues. Elvira’s malicious mischief ultimately causes Ruth’s death. In due time, Charles finds himself an “astral bigamist,” persecuted by the tyrannical ghosts of both wives. While they trash the drawing room, Coward, as he does in all his major comedies, lets his comic surrogate tiptoe away from the chaos. “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” Charles says, in the play’s last line, exiting as bookshelves and paintings tumble. The moment plays as both a raspberry to melancholy and a huzzah for denial.

At the bar at the Shubert, theatergoers can buy a “Madame Arcati’s Ectoplasm Martini.” You may lift a glass of this potent stuff to Michael Blakemore, one of the finest directors of farce around, and to his superb ensemble. A particular tip of the cloth cap to Everett, who in tuxedo and pompadour cuts a fine Coward figure, hitting every upper-middle-class note of the Master’s teasing nonchalance with swaggering languor. Atkinson’s fluting high dudgeon and Ebersole’s flirtatious hostility create a terrific force field for Everett’s droll reactions. At the center of the mayhem, of course, is the eighty-three-year-old Lansbury. The epitome of the swiftness that Coward admired in his players, she scuttles expertly around the stage like a water bug – not a poltergeist but a whirlwind of idiosyncratic expertise. Together, the actors offer a master class in light comedy.

Blithe Spirit - Directed by Michael Blakemore
Run time: 2:40, including one intermission
Shubert Theatre, 225 W 44th St. (between Broadway & 8th Ave.)

In this video, reviewer John Lahr sits down with the director Michael Blakemore to talk about staging Noël Coward and his long career working with actors and playwrights.

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