Dotty Brilliance

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Here’s one of my immutable rules of theatrical enjoyment: If there’s a play by George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, or Noel Coward in production, don’t miss it. Wilde and Shaw virtually invented the drawing-room “comedy of manners” that exposed hypocrisy and boorishness among the Victorian elite, and Coward perfected it for the Edwardian age. Their plays are witty, quotable, acidic, lighthearted, and dead-on. This season the Shubert Theater is presenting Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” (directed by Michael Blakemore, Shubert Theater), and no matter how many times you may have seen it, it’s always great fun.

One of the reasons high school drama clubs choose these veteran playwrights so often is that they are virtually indestructible. The dialogue is so witty that it carries itself, even if the performances are .amateurish and wooden. But in the hands of virtuoso performers like the dapper Rupert Everett and the divine Angela Lansbury, the result is perfection.

Charles Condomine (Everett), a mystery writer, is the model for Pierce Brosnan’s “Remington Steele” character – handsome, debonair, utterly at home in a tuxedo, and totally useless in the home. As the play begins, Charles and his wife, Ruth (Jayne Atkinson), an imperious, no-nonsense socialite who rules the house and terrorizes the servants, have invited some friends to join them for a seance. They don’t believe in this stuff, of course, but Charles wants to use the experience for a character he is developing in his latest novel.

Enter the star of this show, Angela Lansbury, as the medium Madame Arcati, who very much believes. Dressed incongruously in gypsy velvets and country tweeds, this larger-than-life Arcati has nothing “medium” about her. Lansbury sniffs the air for ectoplasm, listens for spirit voices, douses the lights, and prances vigorously around the stage like a hunter after her prey, in a dance that seems to be channeling the art deco poses of early modern dancers Vaslav Nijinsky and Isadora Duncan. This woman is 83 years old, mind you, and she is dancing about the stage like a 4-year-old, bouncing over furniture and humming tunelessly to summon the spirits of the dear departed.

And seeming to have the time of her life. Even when she forgets her lines (which happened two or three times at the performance I attended) she makes it part of the character, sputtering like a dotty old woman who can’t think of the proper word until the other character gives it to her, just as you would if you were talking to your own dotty Aunt Ida. Brilliant. Simply brilliant.

During the seance, Madame Arcati unwittingly conjures up Charles’ first wife, Elvira (Christine Ebersole), who then sticks around to haunt and torment her widowed husband and his new wife. Ebersole is considered the new Grand Lady of the Stage, modern Broadway’S answer to Helen Hayes or Gertrude Lawrence. She has won two Tonys and numerous nominations. But for the life of me I can’t understand why.

Ebersole began her acting career in soap operas (“Ryan’s Hope,” “One Life to Live”). She should have stayed there. She plays every role with a Judy Holiday whine and rushes each line as if she were worried that the director would cut to commercial before she finished. Good actors don’t just act, they react to events and interact with other actors. Not Miss Ebersole, however. I have seen her enter a scene, shout in agony, “Your hair!”, and then turn to look at her onstage daughter’s freshly shorn locks (Ebersole as M’Lynn in “Steel Magnolias”). As Elvira, the ghost of Charles’s first wife, Ebersole is lovely to look at but painful to hear.

But as I said upfront, you really can’t ruin a play by Coward. The snappy dialogue, the opulent sets, the stage direction, and the story itself carry it along. And then there is the angelic Angela. The title character of “Blithe Spirit” is meant to be Elvira, who normally steals the show with her ghostly tantrums and ectoplasmic pranks. But no one could steal this production from the sprightly clutches of Angela Lansbury. After more than 70 years on stage and in films, she is truly a blithe spirit – happy, carefree, and, like a spirit, able to transcend her mortal, octogenarian body and float across the stage, timeless and endearing.

My second immutable rule of theater enjoyment is this: if Angela Lansbury is in the cast, cross the continent, if necessary, to see her.

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