Monday, March 16, 2009

Blithe Spirit

Noel Coward's 1940s comedy about an eccentric medium who summons up the spirit of a remarried man's dead wife has never lost its popularity. The David Lean film is a TV perennial, the 1960s musical "High Spirits" spawned a memorable recording, and there have been frequent revivals on both sides of the Atlantic. The last on Broadway was in 1987 with a stellar cast that included Richard Chamberlain, Geraldine Page and Blythe Danner.

This is a first-rate production in every way with urbane Rupert Everett as Charles, the beleaguered novelist, pitch-perfect Jayne Atkinson as the befuddled new wife, Ruth (though she seems a bit matronly opposite the still-boyish Everett), and Christine Ebersole as the ethereal and dangerously mischievous specter Elvira. Ebersole also sings some Coward evergreens during scene changes.

And best of all, Angela Lansbury -- who really didn't get a chance to shine in her comeback in the unremarkable "Deuce" two seasons ago -- walks away with every scene she's in as the lovably eccentric Madame Arcati. She gives a real performance, not just a star turn, which ranks with her best work. And with such deluxe casting as Simon Jones and Deborah Rush as a doctor and his wife who take part in a seance that generates such a surprising outcome, and Susan Louise O'Connor as the skittish maid.

Australian director Michael Blakemore keeps the pace moving well on Peter Davison's expansive set.

Though lighter than the air on which Elvira wafts, the play has chops, and you won't see a better mounting of it. (Sam S. Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St.; (212) 239-6200 or Print this post


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