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by Noel Coward
Starring Rupert Everett, Christine Ebersole, Jayne Atkinson and Angela Lansbury
Directed by Michael Blakemore
The Shubert Theater, 225 West 45th Street
Reviewed April 15, 2009 by Margaret Croyden
Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit" has always been a favorite vehicle for those who love English drawing room comedies and English manners. This is the kind of play that on matinee days in London, when the house was full of women, tea was served in the intermission and the audience was quite adept in handling tea on their laps. After all, taking tea in drawing rooms and country houses has always been part of British high comedy dating back to Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. But Wilde and Shaw were ridiculing the upper classes and used clever repartee to depict the foolishness of the aristocracy. Some people believed Noel Coward was in the same category. Maybe he was, when he wrote his plays in the 1930's. But somehow his comedy in the year 2009 is as dated as tootsie rolls.
Actually it's hard to fathom why anyone today would be interested in producing this work. True, Noel Coward was acclaimed for his wit and charm. But this production of "Blithe Spirit" is neither witty, nor charming, nor even interesting. It is simply a bore. Maybe if they had served tea we would be more appreciative.
The plot (ridiculous) is about a group of people getting together to conjure up--with the help of a medium--the leading character's first wife. Don't ask me why. Maybe to show how stupid these people were. Anyhow, the spirit of the wife does appear but is only visible to the leading man: Joke. And it won't go away until the curtain falls. Eventually the second wife also dies and her spirit swishes around the house as well. She befriends the first ghost and together they take turns in ridiculing and tormenting their husband. Now there are two ghosts, who won't disappear. The poor dumb fool thinks he sees these women, has conversations with them which no one else can understand, since only he can see the spirits. This is supposed to be funny. For a minute it is, but repeated for the whole performance it loses its humor.
I suppose there are still people who go for this sort of thing--the British accent and British manners that American actors try to imitate (poorly). But I found the whole evening tedious and empty. O. K., so Angela Lansbury plays the famous medium Madame Arcati, a role made unforgettable by the brilliant Margaret Rutherford, with whom no one should compete. But the audience, to show their love for Ms. Lansbury, gives her a tremendous hand at her entrance and her exit--and each time she enters and leaves the stage. Which is not only disconcerting but stupid. But then again audiences can be besotted by famous actors.
Angels Lansbury, who got all the notices (and probably is responsible for the play running), wears a red fright wig, red make up, a colorful multi colored dress and of course, many bracelets and junk jewelry around her neck. Although she tries to be kinky, her performance is a recognizable cliche of an old, screwy lady as she undertakes the seances.
The leading man, Rupert Everett, actually a Brit, does his best with the role, but he cannot capture the zaniness of the script or what is considered the Noel Coward sophistication. Which is a surprise. Of course it may not be his fault: the lines are not that sophisticated anymore. But he does try. The ghost of the first wife, the talented Christine Ebersole, appears all dressed up in a flimsy white gown with sleeves that look like wings. She flits around the stage, delivers her laugh lines, and moves well. Jayne Atkinson, as the second wife, has a tougher part. Lacking the sophistication or manner of an English upper class woman, she comes across as bland.
The big disappointment is director Michael Blakemore, who has a splendid reputation and has done brilliant work in the past. But not here. The play drags on, slowly, repeating all the gags several times. By the intermission, we are exhausted, and after the intermission, there are again the same gags. What is the problem? The problem is that this play is dated, period. Perhaps it could be revived if the cast were experts in English drawing room comedy. I guess the producers were searching for a role for Angela Lansbury. But I should think she could do better.
Margaret Croyden's latest book is "Conversations with Peter Brook, 1970-2000" (Fairer, Straus and Giroux).
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