Shubert Theatre, New York
Noël Coward’s durable 1941 comedy “still packs plenty of fun,” said Frank Scheck in The Hollywood Reporter. Back on Broadway after 20 years, the playwright’s frivolous farce about a married couple, Charles and Ruth, who invite an eccentric spiritual medium to dinner—who in turn invites along the “pesky poltergeist” of Charles’ disgruntled first wife—is the subject of this starry revival featuring Angela Lansbury and Rupert Everett. Though the play’s “quaint humor isn’t as biting” as that of other Coward classics, director Michael Blakemore has assembled a “delightful” production that “classily harks back to an earlier theatrical era.” Blakemore seems intent on giving audiences a tonic to make their own recession-worried spirits a little more blithe, and though he stumbles at times, he mostly succeeds.
He can thank Angela Lansbury for that, said Emma Brockes in the London Guardian. It’s rare that an actress “brings the house down every time she raises an eyebrow,” but that’s precisely the well-deserved reaction the 83-year-old commanded on opening night. As the flighty old spiritualist Madame Arcati, Lansbury “is funny without seeming to try.” Whether she’s dancing gaily to Irving Berlin’s “Always” or “chicken-hopping” across the stage to gear up for a séance, she provokes plenty of “isn’t-she-marvelous wonder.” Lansbury gets a nice assist from Everett, who in his Broadway debut is perfect as Charles, the upper-crust English novelist turned “astral bigamist.” And though the play doesn’t ask much of the wives both living and dead, Jayne Atkinson and Christine Ebersole fill both roles admirably.
Unfortunately, “Blakemore’s production is not, at this point, perfectly paced,” said Ben Brantley in The New York Times. Timing is everything in a Coward comedy. When Charles asks Ruth, for instance, who’s reading a newspaper—“Anything interesting in the Times?”—her reply, “Don’t be silly, Charles,” needs to be both deadpan and quick. On several such occasions, the actors seem to miss their cues, and the jokes fall flat. But there’s much pleasure in watching these actors, particularly Lansbury, discover these roles. Maybe that’s why “I wound up enjoying this Blithe Spirit more than I had many a slicker version.”