Here is the perfect Christmas gift for the “Downton Abbey”/”Upstairs Downstairs”/antimacassar set. Anglophiles will probably thrill to the (sometimes hard to catch) British accents, Designer Simon Higlett's perfect English drawing room, and Noël Coward's ever-so-tasteful, black-tie double entendres. Angela Lansbury steals the show with her doughty antics as Madam Arcati, a medium who is brought in to provide background material for novelist Charles' (Charles Edwards) new book.
Charles has been married seven years to Ruth (Charlotte Parry), his second wife. His first, young and coquettish Elvira (Jemima Rooper), died tragically young after their brief marriage. Ruth, of the perfect composure, claims no jealously even though Charles speaks glowingly of Elvira's charms and beauty. They have invited Dr. and Mrs. Bradman to a dinner with the intent of having Madam Arcati conduct a séance. They are all to behave completely seriously when she comes so Charles can capture the essence of Arcati's hocus-pocus. What could possibly go wrong here? Spoiler alert, but surely you must have guessed: Arcati conjures up the ghost of none other than Elvira, whom only Charles (and we, fellow audience members) can see and whose mission is to disrupt. And so it goes. A little more conjuring, a little more horseplay by ghosts, a little more marital nattering.
Plot line a little thin? Let us give poor Noël a break. It was 1941 when, in five days, he scribbled "Blithe Spirit" as a mood elevator for war-stressed Brits. It was the perfect medicine for the times and ran for an unprecedented 1,997 performances. Much has been made of Coward's ear for marital fraying. Frankly, I think Daniel Catán's "Florencia en el Amazonas" currently playing across the Music Center Plaza, more accurately captures the tone of the constant wearing at the edge in long-term relationships than does "Blithe Spirit." But what do I know? I am only a shrink; however, I will not be the first critic to have called "Blithe Spirit" a little creaky and not Coward’s best work.
If this production has legs, and it seems to have, they belong to Lansbury. Her performance is so good the temptation is to say, "Aw, go see it anyway." She manages to infuse a totally artificial character with hilarious charm and abandon. Ironically hers is the most believable of the evening. Sadly, Jemima Rooper, though energetic, lacks Elvira's necessary ghostliness and seduction. Susan Louise O'Connor's Edith, the maid, is as outlandish as Lansbury's Madame Arcati, but O’Connor’s comes across as pure caricature, lacking in the grand dame's finesse and not at all PC. While Charles Edwards is a joy to watch and hear, he connects only to himself. More than anything, director Michael Blakemore has provided a set of solo performances. More often than not there is a pause after a cue and before the next perfectly clipped delivery begins. Then Lansbury dances across the stage. She acts the part of someone much younger pretending she's an old woman. She is 89 years old. She's remarkable for any age.
To the died-in-the-wool Anglophile, all of my nitpicking will matter little. To you I say, "By all means catch this production." To others who are sensitive to the fact that comedy is not an art form that ages easily, I would say, "There's better Noël Coward out there. Wait for it." Sadly, "Blithe Spirit" has not aged nearly as well as Ms. Lansbury.