Blithe Spirit, which reached Broadway a third time March 15, at the Shubert, was just ending its original engagement here with Clifton Webb and Mildred Natwick in October of '43 when another blithe spirit (also English) was starting up on the other coast.Fact is, Angela Lansbury had to wait till Oct. 16, her 18th birthday, before she could legally have a cigarette on camera with Charles Boyer in "Gaslight."
That's a lot of smoke and fog under the bridge. The crucial thing is that the actress, now 83 and holding up like an octogenarian poster girl, and Noel Coward's so-billed "improbable farce," also in great shape, connected at last — with kinetic sparks.
At the star's insistence, the opening night party was held at Sardi's — a simple matter of throwing open the sidedoors of the Shubert and walking straight across 44th Street — just the spot to celebrate a triumphant return to traditional values that still work.
"It's a very, very hard play to do," opted La Lansbury, who works on it aggressively, reminding us what a first-class character comedienne she is and always was. Here she is Madame Arcati, a dizzy old spiritualist who conjures up for her neighbor Charles (Rupert Everett) the restless and mischievous spirit of his glamorous first wife, Elvira (Christine Ebersole) — much to the confusion (and, later, chagrin) of his second, Ruth (Jayne Atkinson). Coward warned you about "improbable." A Lansbury Arcati is reason enough to warrant a revival of Blithe Spirit, and 23 producers listed above the title of the show heeded the call to make it happen.
It's a role she has wanted a long time, she admitted. "I didn't realize it'd happen the way it did. It just came out of the blue, y'know. I'm glad I was around to pick it up."
At an age when an actress could kick off her shoes and rest a bit, Lansbury keeps coming back to Broadway. "I know, but once an actress, it's very hard to decide 'I'm not going to do it anymore.' A huge constancy thrown into my life would be gone."
Another octogenarian (just), Michael Blakemore — the only director to win Tonys for directing a play (Copenhagen) and a musical (Kiss Me, Kate) in the same year (2000) — shepherded Lansbury through her most recent Broadway outing, Terrence McNally's Deuce opposite Marian Seldes and now the demanding rigors of Arcati. He said, "It's a part absolutely made for her. I think when it was offered to her, she thought, 'I've got to do this. I've got to do this.' And indeed she has done it, done it brilliantly."
There seems to be a minefield of new laughs in this production, but Blakemore declined to take a bow. "I just tried to do it as it seemed to be required to be done, but I was very lucky with the people I've got doing it. You've got to get the right pace for Coward. You've got to get that nimbleness of mind. Our cast all has that.
"Rupert is a very natural light comedian of that school. He knows how to play Coward, is very open to direction and works very hard. Charles is not an easy part. Unless you have a good Charles, the evening falls apart. It's the longest part, and he's on the most. I think he did well — well, they're all good. Jayne is sensationally good."
Atkinson is the surprising source of much fun in this particular production, playing the poor, put-upon, grounded and rather square Wife Two, Ruth, who finds herself locking horns (if only she could see them) with the lovely apparition of Wife One.
"I have played the part before, under the direction of Joey [John] Tillinger, at the Long Wharf Theatre with my husband, Michel Gill, but it was Michael Blakemore who told me a lot about the beauty of Ruth, what a wonderful character she was. He talked about the humanity and realness of a woman who's in love with her husband whose first wife whom he quite loved has come back, and I'm very upset about this.
"Michael really brought home to me the precision of this character, and through the precision the humor really comes forward. I love to be funny, and this really gives me the chance. I really haven't had that opportunity so I'm in love with this role."
Ebersole makes a gorgeous ghost, in a platinum wig by Paul Huntley and a costume of white gossamer chiffon by Martin Pakledinaz — and, boy, does she work the dress, wafting among the living in Peter J. Davison's handsome, high-ceiling living room, making nasty cracks only her husband hears. She also knocks off a minute of Coward or Irving Berlin in her crystal-clear soprano during the seven scene changes.
[flipbook] Any way you take her in, she's a long way from Grey Gardens. "I don't have a favorite moment," Ebersole insists. "I love the whole thing. There's not a part I don't love."
Lead producer Jeffrey Richards can trace the genesis of this Blithe Spirit directly to the person playing the part. "Jerry Frankel and I wanted to do a musical with Christine," he recalled, "and she said, 'I don't want to do a musical. I want to do a straight play. What do you think of Woman in Mind by Alan Ayckbourn?' I said, 'Well, I love the play, but it was just done by Stockard Channing.' Then she suggested Regina in The Little Foxes. I said, 'It's a wonderful role, but you're such a great comedienne. Do you know Blithe Spirit?' She didn't know. She read it and loved it and wanted to do it. And I thought Angela would make a great Arcati, and, since she had already worked with Michael Blakemore, I thought it'd be a brilliant idea.
"Rupert had been somebody I had been after at one point when we did a reading of Gore Vidal's Visit to a Small Planet. And for a couple of years I'd tried to get him to do Deathtrap. Finally, the third time was the charm — but I also knew something that a lot of people did not know: Rupert had played Elvira when he was in public school at 10 or 11 when boys played girls' parts. And that enchanted him to do this."
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The craftiest little scene-stealer on the premises is Edith the maid, who comes in two speeds — lunge and lope. She is played by a Broadway-debuting Susan Louise O'Connor (this year's Una O'Connor in the comic-maid department). She welled up with tears when Marian Seldes came over to her and complimented her portrayal. "Everything fantastic that you see is Michael Blakemore, a complete comic genius," said O'Connor, quick to give credit where credit is properly due. "All that, and he's witty and smart and charming. Honestly, I'm completely smitten. He was fantastic."
One bit of physical business in the second act — A Maid's Way With a Chair — draws not only immediate laughter but applause of appreciation as well. "Michael had the idea. We had a bunch of things that we worked on for a long time with the chair, and then there were different chairs. Recently, The Chair Moment has evolved into what we have now. As a general rule, if you see anything hilarious, that's Michael."
Also bullish on Blakemore is Deborah Rush, who plays the doctor's foot-in-mouth spouse. She last worked with Blakemore a critical quarter of a century ago when she turned in a Tony-nominated performance of a myopic, ditzy actress in Noises Off. She met her future husband, Chip Cronkite, during the run, and he would meet her nightly at the stage door. Consequently, as she sees it, "Michael is, like, the arbiter of my life. Without him, I wouldn't have this husband and these two boys — and now this wonderful new job. He's so brilliant. I'm lucky to have such a nice friend."
Pakledinaz, whose costumes are in the early 1940s mode, was particularly proud of the illusion of flight built into his chiffon creation which allows Ebersole's Elvira's to float about the room a dream walking. "We found out that less was more with that dress," he recalled. "Actually, we had more dress, and we just realized that all she needed to do was have that pillar. I think it was Christine's idea to just throw a length across front to back, and then I made it a little more wearable. By the time we were done, it had turned into angel wings—and it turned into a great way of her never being able to touch Charles' hands, which I had never thought of before.
"I don't know that I have ever had a show where I've worked so much with so many smart actors. We actually agreed to have an open conversation all of the way. We almost never used drawings. We just used time in the fitting room." His veddy veddy proper attire for Ruth is a real example of costuming for character. "I wanted Ruth to be solid, solid like the institution of England. We actually think Jayne Atkinson looks very much like one of the Windsor women. She looks British, so I wanted to make incredible strong simple statements. One of my favorites for her is the wool plaid jacket and the simple skirt. She looks like a young Elizabeth."
Simon Jones, the Bridey of "Brideshead Revisited" and a Blakemore player since Benefactors, settles into Blithe Spirit as a country doctor given to house calls, what with all the ghastly, ghostly accidents going on.
It will be an interesting chapter in the book he may get around to writing one day, "Divas I Have Worked With" — so far: a TV Elvira (Lauren Bacall, his co-star in Coward's Waiting in the Wings) and one of the touring Legends (Joan Collins, his partner in Private Lives).
"Angela is incomparable," Jones said of his latest iconic encounter. "She is the nicest person you can imagine. Which is not to say all the other divas weren't the nicest persons imaginable either. But, then, Angela is particularly nice."
Jim Dale, Donna Murphy and Edward Hibbert posed in a shot with Jones' towering 19-year-old, Tim, who was born while they were co-starring with his father in Privates on Parade. Another accidental Roundabout reunion: Jessica Molaskey, Michael Cumpsty and Mary Beth Peil collided in the Shubert lobby for the first time since they did the last Sunday in the Park with George. And Peter Bartlett and David Pittu, both of Never Gonna Dance and What's That Smell, were part of the Marty Party (as in Martin Pakledinaz) along with choreographer Mark Morris.
Other first-nighters included Polly Bergen, columnist Liz Smith, Accent on Youth's David Hyde Pierce, "SNL"-ex Rachel Dratch (now Broadway-bound in Minsky's, "this fall, I think"), Enter Laughing book-writer Joseph Stein (whose Take Me Along played the Shubert) and his novelist son, Harry Stein, theatre documentarian Rick McKay, Isabel Keating (feeling a Broadway musical coming on next season), Tom Santopietro (whose massive new tome for St. Martin's Press, "Sinatra in Hollywood," is selling briskly), Shawn Elliott (keeping himself busy "chasing my four-year-old"), playwright David Ives, Astaire Award-winning dancer Michael Arnold (now in South Pacific), Randy Harrison (who'll be joining Olympia Dukakis, Mark Blum and Jonathan Groff in The Singing Forest next month at The Public), Susan Rice (who wrote a Cybill Shepherd movie for the Hallmark channel, "Mrs. Washington Goes to Smith," airing this spring), Harvey Evans (just back from a Jacksonville, FL Hello, Dolly! opposite Pamela Myers: "Dolly! is part of my life because I spent two years in my youth doing Barnaby, so to play Horace J. Vandergelder was a treat beyond belief. I tried to channel David Burns."), Penny Fuller, Elizabeth Ashley (fresh from an August: Osage County matinee: "That's the way it is — show show show!"), Kurt Warner, Allegra Versace, Actors' Equity's Joe Chiplock, The Public's Oskar Eustis, Tamara Tunie, Richard Thomas and son Montana (that's right), director-choreographers Kathleen Marshall and Rob Ashford (the latter, back from London where he was casting around for his A Streetcar Named Desire at the Donmar — only Rachel Weisz is aboard now), Roger Rees with Rick Elice, scripter Anthony Barrile (who is writing a Ben Stiller movie, "Showstopper," with Elton John who will produce it), Tovah Feldshuh (bracing for a Broadway run at the Walter Kerr in Irena's Vow "two weeks from tonight"), John Gallagher Jr., Cheyenne Jackson, Zeljko Ivanek, Laila Robins (partaking of episodic TV, playing Gabriel Byrne's high-school sweetheart on "Treatment" and working with Tina Fey on "30 Rock" while "waiting for the next play") with Robert Cuccioli (doing Dickinson for Paper Mill Playhouse's 1776 April 15-May 17, having just finished co-starring with Jane Alexander in Pittsburgh in A Moon To Dance By, which he hopes will transfer here in the near future) and the star's producer-brother Edgar Lansbury.
Another authentic Elvira roamed the Shubert and Sardi's on opening night — Tammy Grimes, who played the part under Coward's direction in 1964's High Spirits, "an improbable musical comedy" made of Blithe Spirit by Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray. "I love the picture of Noel Coward at the end of the play tonight — it made me cry," Grimes admitted. "I love the show. I thought it was a wonderful production of a great play. I loved Angela, and I loved the man who played Charles, and I always love Simon — and the rest of the cast was marvelous."
She was not alone in this. Reviews from other newly contented customers ricocheted off the walls of Sardi's. "I loved the fact they all trusted Noel, and I thought it was beautifully directed," opted cabaret impresario Donald Smith. Said Seldes: "I think it could have been written yesterday. You know, people say 'a revival' as if it was an old play. It was all new and all wonderful." Even card-carrying critic Rex Reed weighed in: "It's a great feeling to see this kind of theatre again — a beautiful set, intelligent dialogue and real laughs. It's the kind of theatre you don't see much anymore. As they used to write on preview cards: 'Give us more like this!'"
A "Psychic Consultant" is credited to the show — one Paula Roberts, "The English Psychic." True to her billing, she prognosticates in crisp Queen's English, predicting a hit here for all hands and further foreseeing an award "attached" to the show. "I can't tell if it's for the play or for one of the people in it," she said — so stay tuned.