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If theatregoers came for Lansbury, they'll stay for Coward, as smartly directed by Michael Blakemore. If not properly staged, this 1941 staple of community theatre can come across as dated, as its main conceit -- the hero conversing with a spirit no one else on stage can see or hear -- has been repeated in countless films and TV sitcoms. Blakemore treats the premise and the characters seriously and allows the comedy to emerge without forcing it. We empathize with Charles Condomine's predicament -- his first wife returns from the dead to the scene of his second marriage -- because Rupert Everett doesn't overplay his distress. This matinee-idol movie star proves to be as dry as the martinis he serves.
My only quarrels with Blakemore's choices are Peter J. Davison's cavernous drawing-room setting and allowing costume designer Martin Pakledinaz to dress Jayne Atkinson as Ruth, the second spouse, in matronly attire, so that she seems more like Charles' mother. Atkinson handles her assignment admirably, perfectly timing her properly British responses to flying furniture and ghostly jealousy until she finally reaches the breaking point and runs screaming up the stairs.
Christine Ebersole plays Elvira, the phantom first wife, like a mischievous child. She accompanies each supernatural prank with a wicked grin and delighted giggle. In addition, she provides the lovely vocal accompaniment of period standards by Coward and others during the scene changes.
Simon Jones and Deborah Rush provide solid support as the skeptical doctor and his dithery wife, while Susan Louise O'Connor steals each of her scenes as the jittery maid. In this company, that's saying something.
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.
Presented by Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Steve Traxler, Scott M. Delman, Bat-Barry Productions, Broadway Across America, Ken Davenport, Michael Filerman, Finn Scanlan Productions, Ronald Frankel, JK Productions, Kathleen K. Johnson, Patty Ann McKinnon, Judith Resnick, Terry Schnuck, Jamie deRoy/Alan D. Marks, Zev Buffman, Barbara & Buddy Freitag/Wendy Federman at the Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St., NYC. Opened March 15 for an open run. Tue., 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed. and Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. (212) 239-6200, (800) 432-7250, or www.telecharge.com. Casting by Telsey + Company.
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