- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

NEW YORK (AP) - Light and airy requires heavy lifting _ theatrically speaking.

And for the most part, the starry cast of the latest Broadway revival of “Blithe Spirit” delivers the goods, artfully keeping the classic Noel Coward comedy spinning merrily at the Shubert Theatre.

But then it helps to have Angela Lansbury on hand to play Madame Arcati, the irrepressible spiritualist who delights in contacting those beyond the grave. She makes it look easy _ and blissfully funny _ as the woman who inadvertently sets up an otherworldly love triangle. The complications involve an urbane novelist named Charles Condomine (Rupert Everett), his second wife, Ruth (Jayne Atkinson), and his departed first wife, Elvira (Christine Ebersole), who returns as a ghost to haunt her hubby.

Lansbury is done up in a Heidi-like red wig that suggests a Teutonic version of Mrs. Lovett from “Sweeney Todd,” the Sondheim musical in which she once starred. To succeed as Arcati, an actress has to revel in the woman’s dottiness, and the four-time Tony Award winner embraces the medium’s eccentricities with a giddy physical enthusiasm. Watch her dance across designer Peter J. Davison’s elegant living room set (to the tune of Irving Berlin’s “Always”) and you’ll know what I mean.

Lansbury’s performance also captures the essence of the elegant Coward fizz, champagne bubbles of witty conversation that should trip along effortlessly. Equally adept as this spirited dialogue is Atkinson, who turns the often neglected role of Ruth, the put-upon second wife, into a genuine pleasure.

The actress spars effectively with Everett, just right as the spoiled mama’s boy who finds his life upended when wife number one returns to disrupt his relationship with the second Mrs. Condomine. The actor, making his Broadway stage debut, is a worthy successor to Rex Harrison, who starred in the 1945 film version.

Ebersole is more problematic as Elvira. It’s a showy role and not only because the character, though dead, is very active on stage. The actress, done up in a diaphanous gown by designer Martin Pakledinaz, looks fashionably spectral. Yet something is lost in Ebersole’s odd, high-pitched, rapid-fire chatter that turns some of Coward’s more celebrated lines into mush.

And a Coward play is all about delivery. The banter is precise, particularly in the arguments between the husband and his two wives. Fidelity and faithlessness play big roles in a lot of Coward’s work. Think “Brief Encounter,” for example.

In “Blithe Spirit,” those questions are played for more than chuckles, brittle jokes about sex that sound positively quaint yet still effective more than 65 years after the comedy was written.

A trio of supporting players, Simon Jones, Deborah Rush and particularly Susan Louise O’Connor as a mousy maid who has a certain psychic talent, contribute to the jolliness of this revival.

Director Michael Blakemore is an old hand at mining for humor in the most unlikely situations. He directed the original Broadway production of Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off,” one of the best and most complicated farces ever written. At the Shubert, Blakemore and company make the hard work of getting a laugh quite “blithe” indeed.

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