Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” is having its first Broadway revival in 22 years. What a joy it is in every way. The first Broadway production was in 1941. A rather hit-and-miss all-star revival appeared in 1987. Apparently the Coward estate has correctly deemed Angela Lansbury, Rupert Everett, Simon Jones, Christine Ebersole, and Jayne Atkinson stellar enough to grant production rights to its closely guarded property. Everyone who loves Coward’s brittle and witty plays will appreciate the sublime staging of this most cherished one by multi Tony award-winner Michael Blakemore (“Copenhagen” and “Kiss Me Kate”).
Coward’s comic fantasy comes quickly under the spell of Everett’s wryly suave portrayal of Charles Condomine as the mystery novelist who is suddenly confronted by the ghostly manifestation of Elvira, his deceased first wife. Everett, who doesn’t do nearly enough live theater and is mostly known for his numerous film roles, is quite simply the epitome of the sort of glossy and dashing leading man who once dominated light comedy. His flippant air is as breezily affecting as is his frenzied state of befuddlement when faced with the unsettling return of his first wife. He sets just the right tone for all to follow.
Perhaps Ebersole is a bit more stunningly introduced as the reappearing Elvira, who takes particular delight in disrupting Charles’ mental state. But she is more than just a breathtaking apparition wafting about the living room in a sheer flowing white gown. Ebersole, whose award-winning interpretation of Edith and Little Edie Beale in “Grey Gardens” made theater history, brings sheer radiance to Elvira’s naughty playfulness. Director Blakemore has undoubtedly inspired his ensemble to give themselves up to this frolic and give in to the incomparably chatty dialogue that swells the play. And what a wonderful treat it is to have between-the-scenes interludes of vintage songs, as performed by Ebersole and Lawrence Yurman.
While all the actors have captured the Cowardian style of haute sophistication and repartee without being either smug or supercilious, perhaps I am inclined to give a very high mark, indeed, to Jayne Atkinson, as Ruth, the anguished, vexed, and unwittingly besieged current wife. If it were not for the equally authoritative impressions made by everyone in the cast, it would be easy to see Ruth as the center and the focus of the play. It isn’t Coward’s idea, but Atkinson makes us look at Ruth more closely than ever before. When Charles asks Ruth at the breakfast table, “Anything interesting in the Times,” and she offhandedly answers “Don’t be silly,” it is funnier than it has a right to be.
If any actress has earned the right to be eccentric on stage, it is Lansbury. We know we are in for a full bag of her tricks from the moment she enters wearing a multi-layered ensemble — think a bejeweled and accessorized Countess Maritza — provided by costume designer Martin Pakledinaz. Pakledinaz has gone splendidly overboard with all the women’s wardrobes.
As the eccentric but determinedly sincere medium called in to exorcise the seductive apparition, Lansbury has a field day punctuating the supernatural goings with a hop, skip, and a jump, but mostly with her own inimitable brand of heightened plausibility. And when she proceeds to conjure up the departed, it seems she has been charged from beyond with reviving the Ruth St. Denni school of dancing — pure delight. And is there anyone out there prepared to withstand her inimitable delivery of the line “I smell ectoplasm — strongly?” Even if she is allowed to chew up the savory ectoplasm more than a little, who are we to complain when we are in such endearing company?
As expected, the role of the ever-sprinting maid, Edith, is played with characteristic earnestness by Susan Louise O’Connor. Watching her clear the breakfast table is destined to be remembered as a classic moment in theater comedy. Rather perfect are Simon Jones and Deborah Rush as the nonplussed house guests, Dr. and Mrs. Bradman. It is astonishing how the miles and miles of bickering and squabbling don’t try our patience even a bit, and we would gladly listen to more. Blakemore keeps the action and the dialogue flowing briskly within the nicely accommodating set designed by Peter J. Davison, which proves to have a life of its own.
“Blithe Spirit’s” Broadway history: The 1941 cast included Clifton Webb, Peggy Wood, Leonora Corbett, and Mildred Natwick. The cast of the 1987 revival included Richard Chamberlain, Blythe Danner, Judith Ivey, and Geraldine Page. ***
“Blithe Spirit,” Shubert Theater, 225 West 44th Street. $31.50 to $116.50. 212-239-6200.