Commentary: Broadway all about Angela Lansbury

Readying to be a full-fledged stage actress again

NEW YORK -- Angela Lansbury's return to Broadway in 2007 after 25 years to do Terrence McNally's "Deuce," which garnered her a fifth Tony nomination (on top of four wins), turns out not to have been a one-time-only affair.

Yes, she's still dividing time between homes in Brentwood and Ireland, but Lansbury is readying to be a full-fledged Broadway baby again. Last week, she hosted a gala benefit for Career Transition for Dancers at New York's City Center; in February, she'll be back on a bona fide Broadway stage, eight times per week, in a major revival of Noel Coward's great comedy "Blithe Spirit," playing the daffy, eccentric, bicycle-riding medium Madame Arcati, which Lansbury says "is the one role I've always wanted to play."

Michael Blakemore will direct. Prevues begin Feb. 26 ahead of a March 15 opening.

It should be one of the great successes of the upcoming season. The play is unquestionably one of Coward's best and funniest, the roles are rich, and the cast is ace; besides Lansbury, there will be Rupert Everett and Christine Ebersole co-starring in the parts done by Rex Harrison and Kay Hammond in the 1945 film.

For the record, the first person to play the Arcati role in "Blithe" in New York was Mildred Natwick during the original 1941-43 Broadway run that starred Clifton Webb and Peggy Wood. The most recent actress to play the role in a Main Stem house was Geraldine Page in a 1987 revival that teamed Richard Chamberlain, Blythe Danner and Judith Ivey.

Many others have made heavy marks playing Arcati in television adaptations, including Natwick, Estelle Winwood, Hattie Jacques, Ruth Gordon and, of course, the most familiar Arcati to many because of that widely seen 1945 film version, Margaret Rutherford, who was as eccentric as Coward's character.

Lansbury's latest dalliance on the New York stage continues Monday at the Eugene O'Neill in a single performance of "All About Eve," playing Birdie, the part played by Thelma Ritter in the great film. The special concert-style staging of the 1950 Joseph Mankiewicz Oscar winner is a benefit for the Actors Fund of America.

Five years ago, a similar Actors Fund staging was done on the West Coast, where Lansbury played the small-but-potent Birdie role. She is the only holdover for the East Coast version, joining Annette Bening as Margo Channing (the Bette Davis role in the film) and Keri Russell (as Eve), along with Brian Bedford, Joel Grey, Cynthia Nixon, Peter Gallagher, John Slattery, Jennifer Tilly, piano man Steve Ross and -- a drumroll here -- the celebrated Zoe Caldwell, briefly appearing as the veteran actor at the start of the story who presents an award to the title character.

Directing the whole shebang is John Erman, who has a long history of working with major talents (Lansbury in "The Blackwater Lightship"; Marlon Brando, Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland in "Roots: The Next Generation"; Julie Andrews, Ann-Margret and Hugh Grant in "Our Sons"). "The toughest part of staging a benefit is that when people are working for free, you don't have the same kind of control you have in a paid situation. You depend on everyone's generosity," Erman says. "But on this particular project, everyone has been extremely generous."

A great many famous people have made the trek with Erman to the Actors Fund Home in Inglewood, N.J., to do a monthly Q&A session for the residents there. It's a project he has spearheaded and hopes more New York celebs will join him in for the future.

Among those who've already done so include Lansbury, Grey, Mary Tyler Moore, Jane Powell, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Alan Alda. Bernadette Peters went late last month.


Meanwhile, back to "Eve": Plans are under way for a fully staged production of "Eve" to open next year on London's West End, produced by Duncan Werdon and Sonia Friedman with a new script adaptation by Christopher Hampton -- this version to be done as a straight play, not a musical. That's been done. ("Applause," 1970-72. Comden & Green. Lauren Bacall. A smash.)