Review: Lansbury brings grace and charm to Coward’s classic ‘Blithe Spirit’

Madame Arcati (Angela Lansbury) and Edith (Susan Louise O'Connor) assess the supernatural situation in Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit" through Feb. 1st at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco. (Photo by Robert J. Saferstein)

Madame Arcati (Angela Lansbury) and Edith (Susan Louise O’Connor) assess the supernatural situation in Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” through Feb. 1st at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco. (Photo by Robert J. Saferstein)

The delectably cheeky Noel Coward sure has a sense of humor. The witty and pretty “Blithe Spirit” is certainly in a wonderful place as it makes its way through San Francisco, led smartly by the wonderful direction of Michael Blakemore and starring Angela Lansbury as séance guru and all-around nutbag Madame Arcati, a role that won her a Tony award back in 2009.

I’ve always enjoyed “Blithe Spirit,” Coward’s light-hearted farce that he wrote in a week back in 1941. There is painful silliness, ghosts that have been in the other world so long that making serious love would be a welcome change, and a woman whose attempt at a séance is highlighted by a seductive staccato dance which is terribly hee-larious.

What works so swimmingly well in this production that is currently running through the Golden Gate Theatre is the tight and delicious cohesion, led by bona fide star Lansbury. Lansbury was certainly the star of the show, and the opening night audience came ready to love and adore her (Constant applause on every entrance got a bit tired, but hey, what the hell). Yet, the grandness of her presence never overpowered the stage or the other cast members who were more than up for the style of Coward and his zany wackiness.

Blakemore put plenty of great touches in the show, with a set that is a combination of sheer elegance and regal rustic. Grand doors lead into the room, and cob-webbish beams hover over the proceedings. Maintaining the house was a terribly funny turn by Susan Louise O’Connor, playing Edith. She walks around like a little tiny football player, leading with her head down, barely making eye contact with anyone in her path. She flits around everyone with a shamed purpose, yet finds so many daft touches to enhance the comedy. Picking up a tray? Just dahling.

Blakemore’s touches certainly include some very sharp pacing, and some absolutely magical moments, most notably by Charles Edwards, who plays author and socialite fella Charles Condomine with a euphoric and conflicted flair. The Downton Abbey actor is a dapper and debonair gent, a superb leading man who understood clearly that every moment goes through him. The play was chock-full of scenes that he navigated with veteran purpose.

Edwards was paired with some solid young ladies as well, Jemima Rooper as spirited Elvira and Charlotte Parry as current wife Ruth. With Elvira, who gushed of supernatural sex appeal, Charles certainly looked as if he was having second thoughts of sticking around this earthy earth in order to move on with Elvira. It is her playfulness that certainly sharpened the sense of conflict between Charles and Ruth.

One of the best scenes of the play was between Edwards and Parry, as they went full on conflict mode at the breakfast table. This is the moment where everything about the play unified beautifully. Superb listening between the two veteran actors, attacking Coward’s display of linguistic and stylistic Olympics was just a delight to watch, and thrilling to boot.

That is not to say every moment in the play is loaded with this level of engagement. There were certainly moments where Coward’s play is too wordy, which allows the show a bit of disengagement on the part of the audience. However, watching such a solid and accomplished cast, led by the venerable Lansbury still knocking ‘em dead as if she was born stage left certainly brings about the joy of a pithy comedy of manners.

The actors found everything that is certainly appealing of this classic British farce, a play that saves a wonderful surprise for the end. And all one can hope for is if there are indeed spirits, that they are as fun-loving and free-wheeling as those that inhabit the world of Coward.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

SHNSF presents “Blithe Spirit”
Written by Noel Coward
Directed by Michael Blakemore
The Word: Lansbury is full on star power as she approaches the classic Noel Coward play, supported by a fabulous cast of accomplished actors.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission
Through Feb. 1st
The Golden Gate Theatre
1 Taylor Street, San Francisco, CA
Tickets range from $45 – $175
For tickets, call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com

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