A “Blithe Spirit” for Troubled Times


Published: March 12, 2009

If you open the Arts section of any New York paper these days, you will find that the non-musical fare consists mostly of tragicomic Chekhov, Shakespeare’s murderous monarchs (think “Othello” at the Duke) and generally dark, brooding pieces of drama. At the Shubert Theatre, however, there is an oasis of old fashioned comedy—Noel Coward’s sublime (and very British) confection “Blithe Spirit.”  This play may not be lofty drama, but it is excellent entertainment, which might just be exactly what we need in troubled times like these.

“Blithe Spirit” is the story of author Charles Condomine and his wife who invite the medium Madame Arcati over to conduct what he thinks will be a phony séance ,so he can collect information for a mystery novel that he is writing.  It turns out, however, that Arcati is the real deal: the man’s dead first wife, Elvira, is summoned from “the other side” and proceeds to turn the couple’s life topsy-turvy.  The twist? Only Charles can see Elvira, and this volatile spirit actually has much more up her fluttering, ghostly sleeves than one might ever imagine.

The term “old-fashioned” is often tossed around in discussions of revivals of plays from the 1930s and 40s, when Coward was at his peak, writing both comedic plays like “Design for Living” and what are now classic songs for musicals and revues. But here, that oft-used phrase seems to have become an entire conceptual framework deliberately put in place by the director—and it works to perfection. The design of the lavish set meticulously recreates a late Victorian home (which becomes the locale for the positively wondrous ghostly effects in the final scene).  Title cards, announcing the act, scene and information like “After a long night the two have breakfast” appear much like they would in a silent film. And from the gramophone the romantic tunes of Cole Porter drift and haunt the world of “Blithe Spirit.” The result of all this is that the show feels comfortably quaint, rather than dated in any way.

At the center of this production of “Blithe Spirit” is one of the first ladies of the theatre—the legendary, four-time Tony winner Angela Lansbury—who stars as the wonderfully eccentric Madame Arcati. As Lansbury stuffs cucumber sandwiches in her mouth, delivers her off-the-wall lines and spins around the room in a trance, one is consistently struck by just how perfect her comic timing is. Almost everyone else, with the exception of Christine Ebersole as the pouty Elvira and Jayne Atkinson as the hyperkinetic maid, is playing the straight man, so to speak.  The comedy, and in fact the whole energy, centers around the kooky Lansbury, who does kooky better than anyone else on Broadway. The rest of the small cast acquits themselves nicely with the dry-witted Brit Rupert Evert being a standout.

With a combination of a wonderful cast led by the amazing Lansbury, charming sets and Noel Coward’s witty script, this fanciful production of “Blithe Spirit” allows us to take a break from dire headlines and plummeting market to temporarily visit the comically bizarre world this revival so deftly conjures.