Monday, March 16, 2009

Blithe Spirit


By Noel Coward. Directed by Michael Blakemore. At the Shubert Theatre. (CLOSED)

Is it possible that the reviewers saw vastly different performances of Blithe Spirit? That's the only explanation I can come up with to explain how several reviewers (including AMNY, the Times and the Post) cite paraphrased lines, unsure blocking, long pace-killing set changes and projection issues in their reviews while several others (The New Yorker and NY1 chief amongst them) gush over the precision and overall excellence of Michael Blakemore's production. Conservative gadfly John Simon, whose grades usually hover in the D-to-F range here on CoM, hands out his first A+. Everyone praises Angela Lansbury and newcomer Susan Louise O'Connor (congrats, Susan!)

Bloomberg A+
(John Simon) When a scintillating comedy, masterly direction and superior performances come together, what have you got? A rip-roaring revival of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit that lights up Broadway’s Shubert Theatre.

Talk Entertainment A+
(Oscar E. Moore) Make no mistake. Michael Blakemore’s brilliant production of Blithe Spirit at the Shubert Theatre is one of the most elegant, funniest and honest representations of the battle of the sexes on Broadway today, refusing to go the route of foul language depending rather on the wit of Noel Coward to get his humorous barbs across.

The New Yorker A
(John Lahr) At the bar at the Shubert, you can buy a “Madame Arcati’s Ectoplasm Martini.” May I lift a virtual glass of this potent stuff to Blakemore, one of the finest directors of farce around, and to his superb ensemble. A particular tip of the cloth cap to Everett, who in tuxedo and pompadour cuts a fine Coward figure, hitting every upper-middle-class note of the Master’s teasing nonchalance with swaggering languor. Atkinson’s fluting high dudgeon and Ebersole’s flirtatious hostility create a terrific force field for Everett’s droll reactions. At the center of the mayhem, of course, is the eighty-three-year-old Lansbury. The epitome of the swiftness that Coward admired in his players, she scuttles expertly around the stage like a water bug—not a poltergeist but a whirlwind of idiosyncratic expertise. Together, the actors offer a master class in light comedy.

TheaterMania A
There are abundant reasons for racing to top-drawer director Michael Blakemore's just-about-perfect revival of Noel Coward's 1941 boulevard-comedy trifle Blithe Spirit, now at Broadway's Shubert Theatre, but the chief attraction is definitely Angela Lansbury's side-splitting performance as the zany medium Madame Arcati.

(David Cote) Well, now there's another apparition to be found on the Rialto, and it's frightfully funny. The play is Blithe Spirit, the champagne-light supernatural farce by Noel Coward, and it should continue to haunt the Shubert for a good long time....Together cast and director strike the perfect tone of archness and silliness, debonair wit and impish glee.

Time Out NY A
(David Cote) All one asks of a Coward revival are actors with high comic style and verbal felicity,handsome sets and a brisk pace, which Blakemore & Co. graciously provide. Added bonus: A comfy supporting turn by Simon Jones and theBroadway debut of adorable Susan Louise O'Connor as the Condomines'coordination-challenged maid. O'Connor shares stage time with Lansbury;is there any doubt that some of the latter's unquenchable spirit willtransmigrate into her?

American Theater Web A
(Andy Propst) Blakemore and the cast certainly make the most of all of the comic potential of the script, and discover new ways to heighten it. Lansbury imbues Arcati with dotty athleticism and a host of smile-inducing tics. When Arcati prepares to go into a trance to contact her control on the "other side" – a snotty seven-year-old named Daphne – Lansbury's Martha Graham-like fluttering around the stage to Irving Berlin's "Always" is simply hilarious. Susan Louise O'Connor, playing the Condomines' maid Edith, also proves to be a marvelous physical comedienne, as the mentally slow, but overly eager to please, Edith rushes through her duties around the living room (rendered handsomely, but with curious sparseness, by scenic designer Peter J. Davison).

Hollywood Reporter A
(Frank Scheck) Old-fashioned in the best sense, the new Broadway revival of Blithe Spirit will have theatergoers thinking they've entered a time machine and traveled back to 1940s London. This charming production of Noel Coward's durable 1941 comedy features a sterling cast expertly performing under the direction of master farceur Michael Blakemore ("Noises Off"), and the results are delightful.

Lighting and Sound America A-
(David Barbour) Noel Coward subtitled Blithe Spirit "an improbable farce," but, really, there's nothing improbable about it -- it's a sturdily constructed piece of malicious hilarity that miraculously retains its freshness after six decades. Like most of Coward's works, however, it is notoriously vulnerable to directors and actors whose work is less than pitch-perfect. It's our great good luck that Michael Blakemore's production is infused with high spirits, featuring a cast of actors who are precisely attuned to Coward's mordant, martini-dry commentary on relations between the sexes, as practiced on both sides of the grave.

Guardian B+
Through long and terrible service in am-dram, even the classiest productions of Noël Coward have a whiff of the village hall about them. Blithe Spirit is particularly hard to pull off, since the audience must believe some of the characters can't be seen or heard by others. The casting in this case is sublime. Rupert Everett, who doesn't have to act to look petulant, is perfect as Charles, a louche novelist who - when his unruly first wife is summoned back from the dead - finds himself enjoying the role of "astral bigamist". Described by his second wife during an argument as a man of "seedy gravitas" with the look of a "wounded puppy", Everett perfectly embodies Coward's delight and contempt for the absurdities of his adopted class.

Associated Press B+
(Michael Kuchwara) 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.

Backstage B+
(David Sheward) This Blithe Spirit is like spending a pleasant afternoon tea with a favorite aunt. You'll be served familiar treats and hear familiar stories, but with Angela Lansbury and friends handing out the goodies, you know you'll enjoy yourself.

TalkinBroadway B+
(Matthew Murray) Even if the premise is wispier than the incorporeal Elvira, it’s more than sufficient foundation for two and half hours of the kind of classy levity at which Coward excelled. The writing pulls few unexpected strings: It’s all little more than lightly juicy misunderstandings about what’s being said but not heard and typical business about romantic archrivals meeting on a field of battle more than any imaginable. But it all works as presented, provided it has a director willing to trust it (and not overload its simplicity) and a cast that can put across all the lacerating laugh lines without cutting themselves to oblivion in the process. Thankfully, this revival has both.

Village Voice B
(Michael Feingold) Michael Blakemore's astute, faithful revival (Shubert Theater) gets most mileage from the droll performances of its three leading ladies, Jayne Atkinson, Christine Ebersole, and, especially, Angela Lansbury, whose dotty, Cockneyfied Madame Arcati is a deliciously fresh reading of a part often played over-heavily. What Blakemore's three divas could use is a show of more spirit from Rupert Everett: Carefully withholding all emotional display, possibly from fear of the competition, he underplays the work's central role almost to the point of disappearance.

USA Today B
(Elysa Gardner) Charles is ideally represented by a dashing, droll Rupert Everett, making his Broadway debut. Jayne Atkinson's Ruth, too, is pitch-perfect, a paragon of well-bred composure who with Elvira's prodding comes deliciously undone. Susan Louise O'Connor has a wonderfully wry turn as their hapless maid. Christine Ebersole's Elvira is, disappointingly, more problematic. The actress looks gorgeous in flowing chiffon, but her fluttery, rapid-fire delivery makes some wisecracks hard to decipher. And Ebersole's girlish flirting and sulking veer too close to the age-inappropriate cutesiness that she affected, triumphantly, as the poignantly wacky "Little Edie" Beale in Grey Gardens.

NYTimes B
Genial but bumpy... Mechanical comedies creak as they age, and Blithe Spirit is no exception. But if it is perfectly paced, it can still keep an audience in a state of tickled contentment. Mr. Blakemore’s production is not, at this point, perfectly paced, which is surprising given that this British director is the man who originally whipped Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, that most frantic of backstage comedies, so expertly through its complicated maneuvers... Yet despite such shortcomings I wound up enjoying this Blithe Spirit more than I had many a slicker version. Much of that pleasure came from watching what Ms. Atkinson, Mr. Everett and particularly Ms. Lansbury make of their roles. If Blithe Spirit itself misses comic greatness, Coward did create a genuinely great comic character in Madame Arcati, and Ms. Lansbury gleefully makes it her own.

Newday B-
(Linda Winer) Coward hasn't had much luck on Broadway in recent years, and this Blithe Spirit, for all its pleasant charms, doesn't entirely reverse the curse. How odd that Blakemore - the British master director of such stylish braininess as "Copenhagen" and such stylish foolishness as "Noises Off" - does not locate more of the luxurious, brittle sheen and the high-style physical humor in this farce about a married novelist bewitched by the ghost of his first wife. Instead, we get old-fashioned scene titles, hokey effects and a pretty dowdy set.

Wall St. Journal B-
(Terry Teachout) Michael Blakemore's revival is better than good enough, but its virtues are mainly to be found in the indispensable persons of Angela Lansbury and Rupert Everett....I wish I had more good things to say, but Ms. Ebersole proves to be both unexpectedly unseductive and unsatisfyingly shrill, while Mr. Blakemore's staging, a couple of slick bits of slapstick notwithstanding, is efficient rather than inspired.

NYPost B-
(Elizabeth Vincentelli) Director Blakemore should genuflect daily to Lansbury and Atkinson, who really save his bacon. Where Lansbury flies by the seat of her flapper skirt, Atkinson is an exemplar of control. As the only person behaving like a responsible adult, Ruth risked being no more than a foil for the others. But Atkinson's performance is never less than wonderfully comic and evocatively shaded. Her stiff upper lip, for instance, which signals contented restraint at the beginning, morphs to a mask barely concealing wounded pride and growing rage by the end. If only the other two points of the triangle had been as sharp.

CurtainUp B-
(Elyse Sommer) Lansbury's being the box office magnot [sic]does not mean this is an otherwise terrible production. It's just that at two hours and fifteen minutes, plus intermission, there are more than a few scenes when things creak along rather than generating peals of laughter. Too bad that Mr. Blakemore, in his determination to remain true to the original as possible, chose not to speed things up a bit.

NY Daily News B-
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Angela Lansbury may be fidgety and frazzled at times, but she’s the spark in the new production of Noel Coward’s 1941 comedy, now open at the Shubert.
Watching the 83-year-old Lansbury work her magic is endless fun, as she seemingly channels past characters... Otherwise, director Michael Blakemore doesn’t offer much in terms of imagination in this revival, unlike the last Coward production on Broadway, Private Lives, which ran in 2002 and was out of this world.

NY Magazine C+
(Scott Brown) The latest visitation of Blithe Spirit, directed by Michael Blakemore (Copenhagen), has several producer-necromancers’ names above the title, but does it have an urgent reason to rouse its ectoplasm and haunt again? Do lean times lend themselves to a generously starched production of a Noël Coward farce that’s seen more reincarnations than Shirley MacLaine? Blakemore’s answer is a resounding “kind of,” but he has a secret weapon: Angela Lansbury.

(Matt Windman) Michael Blakemore’s production is competent, but so old-fashioned and reverential that Coward’s script starts to creak with old age. For better or worse, the dark undertones of the story are completely ignored. The cast looks as if it is still finding its footing and refining its comic timing. Because the production is in a rather large theater, the cast has serious problems with vocal projection.

NY Observer C-
(John Helipern) Mr. Blakemore—the veteran director whose production of Michael Frayn’s classic backstage farce Noises Off is legend—has faltered uncharacteristically here. Coward’s plays demand a superior carriage trade production, yet the set design of Blithe Spirit’s spiffy upper-class drawing room is forlornly drab. And Mr. Blakemore hasn’t, as yet, got the comic timing of his distinguished ensemble right. Frivolity is best taken lightly. But the pace of the piece is too labored, the comedy too broad.

Variety C-
(David Rooney) Playing Coward well requires actors to bounce off each other while effortlessly inhabiting the playwright's rarefied world of barbed gentility. Here, the timing is almost always a fraction off, and the performances too studied. Not only does the verbal interplay lose its fizz, but the production sacrifices the hints of substance below the surface of this comedy about death and an "astral bigamist" with no understanding of women. D
(Robert Feldberg) If the revival of Blithe Spirit were a dessert, it would be an unrisen soufflé... It's instructive that the evening's biggest laughs go to Susan Louise O'Connor, the least-known member of the cast, who has the modest role of a clueless, inefficient young housemaid.... By comparison, everyone else – including Elvira – seems earthbound. The main ingredient this Blithe Spirit lacks is a true, unfettered sense of merriment.

BB A+ 14; TE A+ 14; TNY A 13; TONY A 13; TM A 13; ATW A 13; NY1 A 13; HR A 13; LASA A- 12; GU B+ 11; BS B+ 11; TB B+ 11; USAT B 10; VV B 10; NYT B 10; WSJ B- 9; ND B- 9; NYP B- 9; CU B- 9; NYDN B- 9; NYMAG C+ 8; AMNY C+ 8; TNYO C- 6; V C- 6; NJ D 4; TOTAL = 258/ 25 = 10.32 (B) (MODE = A)

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