While the dry martinis flow freely among hosts and guests alike in “Blithe Spirit,” those libations do little to loosen up Michael Blakemore’s classy but stiff Broadway revival. There are sparkling moments, thanks mostly to the light touch of the sublime Jayne Atkinson and the comedic life-force of Angela Lansbury because she’s, well, Angela Lansbury. But overall this is a wispy ectoplasm of the 1941 Noel Coward ghost comedy rather than a full-bodied materialization.
Blakemore seemed a natural choice to reanimate Coward’s “improbable farce.” The Brit director staged Michael Frayn’s clever deconstruction of the genre, “Noises Off,” to great acclaim, and even succeeded in whipping the minor Mark Twain rediscovery “Is He Dead?” into a delicious froth. But the agility with which the gags and witticisms ricocheted around the stage in those productions is absent in this flat outing. And without brio, speed and buoyancy, “Blithe Spirit” can seem a creaky vehicle compared to the sturdier comic frame of a play like “Hay Fever.”
What’s also missing is a unified ensemble. Aside from Deborah Rush as a frequent visitor, who wrestles laboriously and loses the fight with a posh accent and lisp, the actors mostly do creditable work. But there’s not much connecting them.
Playing Coward well requires actors to bounce off each other while effortlessly inhabiting the playwright’s rarefied world of barbed gentility. Here, the timing is almost always a fraction off, and the performances too studied. Not only does the verbal interplay lose its fizz, but the production sacrifices the hints of substance below the surface of this comedy about death and an “astral bigamist” with no understanding of women.
As upper-class English novelist Charles Condomine, Rupert Everett certainly looks the part, swanning around Peter J. Davison’s buttery living-room set as if he were born in a tux, led by his almost comically chiseled chin. Ostensibly as research for a book about a spirit medium, Charles and his elegant second wife Ruth (Atkinson) invite local psychic Madame Arcati (Lansbury) over for cocktails, dinner and a seance. But that session inadvertently summons the ghost of Charles’ first wife Elvira (Christine Ebersole), resulting in a tug-of-love for his affections between earthbound and ethereal rivals.
Ebersole looks smashing in her platinum curls and Martin Pakledinaz’s spectral chiffon gown, allowing her to billow into the room as if materializing out of the drapes. But she’s miscast and a tad too mature to get away with the character’s antics. (Shouldn’t Elvira have the edge of youth over Ruth?) The late Mrs. Condomine is selfish, petulant, mischievous and manipulative, characteristics that are unbecoming on most women over a certain age. Despite some funny line readings and the occasional droll bit of physical comedy, Ebersole makes her a more brittle than blithe spirit.
The performances of Everett and Ebersole both seem too self-regarding to oil the comedy. Everett deploys his natural vanity and hauteur well, tossing off quips with understated relish, but he blurs the line between the character’s languor and the actor’s low energy. There’s no real chemistry between Charles and either wife.
The only one of the principals fully sparking off her co-stars is Atkinson, who reacts to what’s going on around her, not just to herself. Whether Ruth is making bone-dry observations about the handling of domestic staff or dismissing the likelihood of finding anything interesting in the Times, the actress hints at what this production might have been with a more in-sync cast and snappier direction. Atkinson’s scene alone with Lansbury is arguably the best here. The dynamic created by pairing Ruth’s poised pragmatism with Madame Arcati’s dotty sincerity injects a spontaneity that’s missing elsewhere, and fleetingly summons the urgent reality behind the busy comic machinations.
Ranking up there with koalas and kittens, Lansbury is among the most beloved creatures on the planet, and it’s clear from her rapturous entrance applause the audience wouldn’t care if she just sat there. Which she certainly doesn’t.
Garbed in flamboyant urban gypsy-wear and sporting a pair of braided bagels on either side of her head, she channels Mrs. Lovett, Dame Edna and perhaps a little Hyacinth Bucket, her wonderfully dithery mannerisms and extravagant gestures even covering for the occasional line flub. Her double-takes are priceless, particularly when Arcati thinks her authenticity is being questioned. And watching the 83-year-old stage and screen vet limber up before communing with the dead, or lurch into her goofy conjuring dance is a blissful experience.
Susan Louise O’Connor also contributes some daffy shtick as the Condomines’ maladroit maid.
But there’s not much else that’s fresh or adventurous in Blakemore’s by-the-numbers production, which becomes increasingly tiresome as the play stretches on and on and the laughs grow sparse. And while it’s a pleasure to hear Ebersole’s vocals on some Coward standards and Irving Berlin’s “Always” between scenes, those long pauses, with stage directions projected onto a black curtain, manage to slow down what little momentum gets going.