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March 27, 2009

Blithe Spirit

by Jesse North

There are some things in life that, if given the opportunity, you simply have to do. Seeing Angela Lansbury on a Broadway stage is one of them. Thus, rushing the revival of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, starring Mrs. Potts herself, was a no-brainer.

The Blithe Spirit student rush is a tricky one to maneuver, in that discounted tickets go on sale two hours prior to curtain. If the rush begins when the box office opens, I know to show up two hours prior. No problem. But in the case of Blithe, do you show up right at 6 p.m.? Do you come 15 minutes before? Or do you wait all damn day at the front of the line? It’s difficult to judge how many people will show up for rush, and when. Well, I loves me some discounted tickets, but I’m sure as hell not going to create an all day vigil at the head of a one-person line.

So on this drizzly day, I used some cautious judgment and arrived at the Shubert Theatre box office an hour in advance. I was fourth in a line that grew to about 20 people (an overwhelming majority were students on their spring break). To our benefit, management had the good sense to actually let the rushers take shelter and form the line in the lobby, instead of making us wait out in the rain (what a concept!). If only all shows did this, there wouldn’t be any frozen or soggy rushers in the cold months (but then there’d also be less to write about here, wouldn’t there?). The box office attendant announced about 40 minutes prior to selling the rush tickets that there were plenty of seats for tonight’s performance – a rather nice courtesy to the people waiting in line. When the time came, I purchased my $26.50 ticket (with debit – a rarity for rush) and was pleased to see I was sitting second row, extreme right. (Sigh) Another painless rush experience.

Blithe Spirit opens on Charles Condomine (Rupert Everett) and his second wife Ruth (Jayne Atkinson) preparing for a seance they’re hosting at their house, so that Charles can research for a new novel he’s writing. They’ve invited their friends the Bradmans and Madame Arcati (Lansbury) to provide the evening’s services. But in the process, the loopy medium accidentally summons the spirit of Charles’ first wife Elvira (Christine Ebersole), and she proceeds to mischieviously uproot the Condomine household while remaining solely visible and audible to Charles. Due to Madame Arcati’s unreliable abilities, Ruth might have to get used to sharing her man for a while. [In January, the producers held an open audition to hire a “psychic consultant” for the production, and I blogged about it for EW.com. Flipping through the Playbill, it looks like they found their medium in Paula Roberts “The English Psychic.”]

Lansbury is undoubtedly (and unsurprisingly) the gem of this production. Wearing a Princess Leia-like do (yes, the buns) and sporting a cautious, exagerated gait, she is unafraid to come off as an old loon. Clad in tacky costume jewelry and loud, raggish clothing, she is absolutely delightful as she engages in her manic and jolty dance that precedes her conjuring. She’s 83 years old and is the loosest, most risk-taking actor on this stage. Every line Arcati speaks is delivered with embarassing confidence – embarassing because she doesn’t know what she’s talking about and everyone around her knows it. It’s a gimme role, in that it gives the actor cart blanche to juice it for all it’s worth. And Lansbury fills a jug, but has the grace to not let it overflow.

Everett plays a perfect stuffed shirt. His staunch vocal delivery is a perfect reflection of his character’s limited emotional boundaries. It’s all the more a surprise the few times when he bursts into fits of hysteria in reaction to the presense of his dead wife Elvira. It wouldn’t hurt to have thrown a few more outbursts into the mix. There are moments when Everett’s face looks as if it was carved out of wood – his sharp features, the deep bridge of his nose creating dark shadows around his eyes. A couple more flare-ups would have kept him from resembling Sam the Eagle from The Muppets.

Atkinson and Ebersole are wonderful as Charles’ women. Atkinson (FYI: she played the adoptive mother in Free Willy!!) is so effective as a tightly wound Brit, that it’s even more delightful to watch her spin out in Act II. Ebersole hits her marks consistently using the ticklish tone of a 9 year old who isn’t getting exactly what she wants. But even so, seemed to be holding back too much, particularly physically, as if the “must be a ghost” mentality was restricting her movements. Her performance was like watching a lit fuse creep closer toward its dynamite, but the BOOM never comes.

The Bradmans, played by Simon Jones and Deborah Rush in what are complete throwaway roles, fumble any chance they have to prove otherwise. This is particularly surprising of Rush, who is usually a master at spitfire character roles in film. Her performance here is not the caliber of an actress who in In & Out protests “No you’re not! I know you’re not. You’re… uhh, uh, a tramp!” to a female student who announces in the middle of high school graduation that she’s gay. These two should have taken a lesson from Susan Louise O’Connor, who plays the Condomine’s plucky maid, Edith. She steals every scene she’s in with pitch perfect vocal and physical humor. A storming entrance for a Broadway debut.

While delivering some hearty laughs and pretty consistent entertainment, Blithe Spirit starts to feel a bit rigid once it nears the conclusion. It’s obviously a dated play, but as displayed in this production, it’s able to survive only if the cast is quick enough to recucitate it. Oddly enough, it’s the 83 year old who’s running to perform mouth to mouth.

Play: B / Rush: A

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