'Blithe Spirit': Theater Review
Angela Lansbury shows why 89 is the new 40 in this consummate Broadway and West End revival of the Noel Coward classic
Legend has it that Noel Coward wrote Blithe Spirit in six days on a trip to North Wales with his actress friend Joyce Carey in May 1941. It opened a month later in Manchester and then at London’s Piccadilly Theatre, where it was an instant success, becoming one of the West End’s longest-running shows. Early on, producers were skeptical about a comedy focusing on death finding an audience during wartime. But more than death, the subject — like that of many of Coward's plays — is marriage, which in some cases is worse. With many husbands fighting overseas, marriages were met with challenges that left some wondering about the validity of the institution itself.
From the love triangle that results in a menage a trois in Design for Living, to a divorced couple only able to tolerate one another outside of matrimony in Private Lives, to a husband and his wife haunted by a deceased spouse in Blithe Spirit, comedy is Coward’s way of addressing the failed romance of marriage.
Of course Blithe Spirit has more to offer than a jaundiced view of matrimony and its own forgivable brand of creaky misogyny. This 2009 Broadway revival, which was reworked for London's West End earlier this year, features Coward’s expertly crafted and effervescent dialogue swimming in dry martinis.
Charles Condomine (Charles Edwards), a popular novelist, lives an uninspired country life with his domineering wife of two years, Ruth (Charlotte Parry), who takes pride in her English Tudor-style living room. (Its decorative floral still lifes and Joan Miro throw pillows are just some of Simon Higlett’s outstanding design touches.) Condomine is a widower whose first wife, Elvira (Jemima Rooper), died of a heart attack while laughing at a BBC Light Programme on the radio. Early on she becomes a topic of conversation with Ruth, slipping into their subconscious and, eventually, through a seance conducted by Madame Arcati (Angela Lansbury), back into their lives.
At first only Condomine can see Elvira, a situation that allows Coward to show off his nimble way with words. When Ruth thinks Charles’ responses to Elvira are directed at her, three conversations brilliantly interweave in raucous, rhythmic laughs that build one upon the other. Once Elvira manifests herself to Ruth, the two initially become adversaries. But it’s hard to tell where a writer like Coward might go with a story about a man cohabiting with two wives, though death is a good bet since its been hanging in the air since the beginning. Sure enough, Elvira reveals herself capable of extreme measures to steal Charles away from Ruth.
Sometimes when a beloved entertainer gets on in years, they take to the stage when they probably shouldn’t. They get their applause less for their performance than for a lifetime of work and it’s all very heartwarming. Happily, that's anything but the case with the 89-year-old Lansbury, who won her fifth Tony Award for this role.
Despite a louder microphone to help with her projection, Lansbury remains a spry actor, offering a full-bodied performance as she flaps her arms and moans through her pre-seance breathing exercises. Although the ceremonial dance that follows looks like a hieroglyph with a nervous tic, Lansbury takes her character’s claims of otherworldly powers seriously, a smart move calculated for a bigger laugh.
The good news about Blithe Spirit is the rare chance to see her in a late-career triumph that caps 70 years of working with everyone from John Frankenheimer to Stephen Sondheim to Elvis Presley. The better news is that she is just one part of an outstanding ensemble headed by Edwards (Downton Abbey), in a role Coward himself played on tour — the egotistical and ridiculous novelist at the center of the play. Edwards conjures equal doses of charm, wit and buffoonery, effortlessly walking the line between suave and silly, and never losing the audience’s sympathy, no matter how self-absorbed his behavior becomes.
Rooper is a mischievous Elvira, standing in stark contrast to Parry's ever-sensible Ruth. It's easy to see how Charles might have fallen in love with Elvira, just as it’s easy to see how her free spirit might have been a bit too free. Parry is a steadfast straight man to the clowning around her, which is not an entirely thankless role as she gets some of the play’s funniest lines.
Veteran director Michael Blakemore has a keen understanding of his characters, using his cast to subtly illustrate their inner and outer lives. His rhythm with the ensemble wrings maximum laughter out of every line, but always with elegant ease.
According to his letters, Coward boasted of Blithe Spirit: “Beyond a few typographical errors, I made no corrections, and only two lines of the original script were ultimately cut." At a running time of 150 minutes with one 15-minute intermission, it could probably use a trim, but the current production is a consummate staging, so good you may want to see it again.
The play continues its North American tour through March, following its Los Angeles engagement with stops in San Francisco, Toronto and Washington, D.C.
Cast: Charles Edwards, Angela Lansbury, Susan Louise O'Connor, Jemima Rooper, Charlotte Parry, Simon Jones, Sandra Shipley
Director: Michael Blakemore
Playwright: Noel Coward
Set designer: Simon Higlett
Costume designer: Martin Pakledinaz
Lighting designer: Mark Jonathan
Sound designers: Ben and Max Ringham
Presented by Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Steve Traxler, Lee Dean, John Frost, Charles Diamond, Will Trice, Ken Davenport, Kathleen K. Johnson, Jam Theatricals, Center Theatre Group