We gave it a B+
”Time values on the ‘other side’ are utterly different from ours”, utters the kooky medium Madame Arcati (played by the indefatigable Angela Lansbury) in an early scene from Brit wit Noel Coward’s classic supernatural farce Blithe Spirit, and the irony holds in the air like a puff of English drawing-room cigarette smoke. Even nine months shy of age 90, Lansbury doesn’t seem like she will make acquaintance with the ‘other side’ anytime soon. As delightfully daft as she was in her 2009 Tony-winning Broadway portrayal of Arcati, the actress seemingly has a lease on performing that her contemporaries would envy if she hadn’t already outpaced all of them.
But that’s not to slight the first-rate cast of this North American tour of Spirit, currently playing in San Francisco after stints in L.A. and London (with upcoming dates in Toronto and Washington, D.C. through March 29). In fact, the players throw themselves into these roles with more zeal than I remember from the slightly more uneven Main Stem cast, with a too-suave Rupert Everett as the show’s resident Coward stand-in, Charles. A real Charles—Edwards, that is—excels in a superbly calibrated comic turn as the neurotic, hard-drinking ”nice looking man of about forty”, in Coward’s own words, and as a result, Charles has a real rapport with the two chief women in his life, the strong-willed Ruth (Charlotte Parry), his current wife, and Elvira (Jemima Rooper), his long-deceased wife conjured up via seance courtesy of Madame Arcati, town transmitter. Their bold, almost birdlike interpretations of Coward’s stylized scenarios (Parry seems to be a clipped, wise owl, while Rooper is a galloping gazelle) make for vibrant viewing, even when the pace occasionally flags, as is often the case with Coward revivals of late. (Three supporting actors, Simon Jones, Lansbury’s former understudy Sandra Shipley and the hilarious Susan Louise O’Connor, as the town doc, his wife and the household’s dippy maid, respectively, reprise their Broadway appearances along with the Murder, She Wrote star.)
Director Michael Blakemore—no slouch at age 86, it should be said—keeps Blithe Spirit as breezy as Elvira’s flamboyant sashays in and out of rooms. Much like the off-center (and utterly Coward-ly) remark dropped by the latter about the afterlife personality of the warrior Joan of Arc, it’s all rather fun. B+