Noel Coward is said to have written Blithe Spirit in less than a week. The play premiered a couple of months after he completed it, in 1941, when the Germans were bombing London, and audiences, no doubt desperate for distraction, stepped gamely over the rubble on their way to the theater. An “improbable farce” (Coward’s subtitle) about a man stalked by his dead ex-wife, it ran for 1,997 performances, outlasting (notes the program at the Ahmanson) World War II.
Why see this old play? Well, as any local theatergoer must be aware, the Ahmanson’s current touring production features Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati, the dotty psychic who hooks up martini-drinking mystery writer Charles (Charles Edwards) with his now passed-on former spouse, Elvira (Jemima Rooper).
Lansbury won a Tony for this role in 2009, and to judge from her performance Sunday night, she deserved every single bit of it.
But Lansbury isn’t on stage the whole time. Much of the interchange in this puttering 3 hour comedy takes place among Charles, Elvira, and Charles’ second wife Ruth (Charlotte Parry). Ruth cannot see the ghost, and she is therefore mystified, chagrinned and ultimately enraged because she mistakenly thinks that Charles’ sharp dismissive words are directed at her.
As the enmity grows so does the jealous squabbling and increased mention of past infidelities. It’s all very class-bound Noel Coward, replete with cigarettes and cocktails, and unless you’ve got performers striving for the depth and stage presence of, say, an Angela Lansbury, the evening is reduced to banter and antiquated fluff.
That can be corrected as long as the director insists that the players on stage infuse inner life into their characters. But under Michael Blakemore’s direction, Edwards and Parry are, to varying degrees, merely capable. Rooper flounces and pouts, and that’s about it.
On the other hand, there’s Lansbury, who turned 89 in October. If you’re looking to experience a beautiful grande dame of the theater at her comic best, this is your chance.
The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn.; through Jan 18. (213) 972-4400, centertheatregroup.org.
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