These days, a play like Blithe Spirit is a weird little thing. The stage standard and 1941 Noel Coward classic is being revived at a time when Broadway suffers under the weight of economic woes, the incipient demand for stunt casting, and the worrying rush of shows based on films that didn’t need the stage treatment in the first place. Where, exactly, does this creaky old thing fit in?
Charles Condomine (Rupert Everett) and his second wife Ruth (Jayne Atkinson) summon an eccentric, bedazzled medium named Madame Arcati (Angela Lansbury) to their home in Kent, England. Her mission: school Charles, a writer who’s working on a new novel involving the occult. Their friends the Bradmans (Simon Jones and Deborah Rush) have also joined them for the evening, which quickly devolves into chaos once Arcati inadvertently brings back Charles’ first wife, Elvira (Christine Ebersole), who proceeds to behave like the luminescent, prematurely deceased looker that she is. Vases go flying, doors start slamming, and Elvira — who can only be seen and heard by Charles — schemes to make her husband cross on over.
Like Charles, this production is haunted by a few problems of its own, and they start early. Instead of elevating Coward’s repartee, most of the cast threatens to deaden it by the end of the first scene. Onstage tension isn’t always a bad thing — in fact, plenty of plays thrive on just that — but here it’s only exacerbated by the fact that the actors are at varying levels of ease with the material, which badly needs a modernizing touch that you won’t find with this revival. The 83-year-old Lansbury dithers and clucks serviceably as the dotty Arcati, and her physical humor remains astonishingly sharp. Everett’s normally, well, blithe demeanor seems dulled, the arch playfulness for which he became famous badly overshadowed by Atkinson’s plummy vigor. For Jones and especially Rush, typically stellar in hammy-diva roles but stumbling badly here, the problem is their underwritten (and frankly, somewhat useless) characters. But no, there really are no small parts: just witness Broadway newcomer Susan Louise O’Connor, who nearly steals Spirit with her physically adroit, uproarious portrayal of Edith, the Condomines’ mousy, put-upon maid.
No regular theatergoer will be surprised to learn that Ebersole elevates both the energy and the effervescence of this dim show. Flouncing about in an ethereal white gown, Elvira wreaks playful havoc, moving objects and taunting Ruth with giggly nerve. Ebersole was clearly born to perform; in fact, it’s to the detriment of her fellow actors that she so effortlessly commands attention when she’s on stage. In Spirit‘s second half, it’s Ruth who ends up on the other side with Elvira. Naturally, the old girl discovers just how fun it is to fluster Charles from beyond. Atkinson and Ebersole make a fine comedic duo, and as they flit through their scenes like naughty angels, you realize that these two need their own show. Actually, scratch what I said earlier. Thelma and Louise still need to see their names in neon lights, right? B-