There may have been some Noël Coward aficionados the other night among the audience for Blithe Spirit at the Golden Gate Theatre, but most people were clearly there to see Angela Lansbury, as evidenced by the bursts of applause that erupted every time she entered or exited a scene. And no wonder. The star, now 89, has created a wealth of iconic roles over the decades in productions on Broadway (Mame, Sweeney Todd), the big screen (Gaslight, The Manchurian Candidate) and television (Murder, She Wrote). With her Tony Award-winning portrayal of Blithe Spirit's Madame Arcati, the still-charismatic Lansbury adds yet another notable character to her résumé.
Coward’s popular comedy is a typically droll bit of light entertainment about a man whose dead wife's ghost moves back in with him, much to the annoyance of his living second wife. The show premiered in London in 1941, going on to outlast the war and set a new record for the longest running non-musical on the West End (it was eventually eclipsed in the 1950s by Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, which is still playing). Lansbury starred in both the 2009 Broadway and 2014 West End revivals, both directed by Michael Blakemore, who directs this production as well. The touring company brought by SHN to San Francisco is a mixture of both revival casts.
To watch a Coward play is to enter a world of posh and jaded members of the upper class who wear tuxedos to dinne—even at home. Played with an amusing admixture of complacency and befuddlement by Charles Edwards (best known to Downton Abbey fans as Lady Edith’s tragic beau, Gregson), wealthy novelist Charles Condomine and his second wife, Ruth, have settled into a civilized and comradely marriage of dry martinis and drier wit. Charlotte Parry, the only newcomer to the cast, is wonderfully sharp as Ruth, even if her disapproving composure is occasionally at odds with some of the cartoonish reactions for which the play calls.
As the play gets rolling, Charles and Ruth invite some friends over for a dinner party and séance with the eccentric medium Madame Arcati, whom Charles wants to study for a character in his latest novel. Simon Jones is jovially skeptical as dinner guest Dr. Bradman, while his wife (Sandra Shipley) is more cooingly credulous. Susan Louise O'Connor provides a comic delight as Edith, the inept housemaid who’s always sprinting from task to task in a panicky rush.
Lansbury imbues Arcati with a priceless blend of garrulous dottiness and indignant pride. The bizarre, jerky dance she performs to Irving Berlin’s schmaltzy song “Always” is particularly hilarious. She's onstage relatively rarely (the character would get fourth billing were it not for the star power Lansbury lends), but she deftly preserves the mystery of how much of Arcati's shtick is hucksterism, how much is actual ritual that just looks ridiculous and how much is sheer battiness.
In the course of the séance, Arcati inadvertently summons Charles's first wife, Elvira—a free spirit in more ways than one. Played by with impish energy by Jemima Rooper, she runs around in a white nightgown playing pranks and cozying up to Charles, who’s the only one who can see or hear her.
Aside from a couple of odd lulls when nobody says anything, Blakemore’s lively staging is a good match for the frothy frivolity of Coward's script. Blackouts between scenes are punctuated by silent-movie-style projections announcing the setting of the next scene—even though all take place in the living room of the Condomines' palatial country house (designed with marvelous detail by Simon Higlett). During the blackouts we hear lovely trilling renditions of 1920s-style pop songs sung by Christine Ebersole, who played Elvira in the 2009 Broadway revival of Blithe Spirit, and who retains a ghostly sonic presence in this one.
The wackiness here only increases after the supernatural shenanigans start, with most of the play's charm coming from Charles’ ludicrous adaptability to his new life as an “astral bigamist” (to use Ruth’s term). “If only you'd make an effort to be a little more friendly to Elvira," he tells his wife, "we might all have quite a jolly time.” And though the play gets awfully silly before the curtain falls, it’s so witty and well-performed that it seems churlish not to join Charles in just going with the flow.
Blithe Spirit runs through Feb. 1, 2015, at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit shnsf.com.
All photos by Joan Marcus.