Do the actors hired to act alongside Angela Lansbury dance a little jig, let out a war whoop and say “Whoohoo! The sun doesn’t shine any more brightly!” Or do they think it over and say “Holy cats, forget my lines, the scene, the play…I could be dressed head to toe in overripe fruit and, if Dame L. is occupying the same scene, nobody is even going to be looking at me!”
Well, who wouldn’t give a bona-fide scene stealer a scene-stealing role? As Madame Arcati, the eccentric, dotty and rather hungry medium of Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit,” Angela Lansbury exults over other worldly triumphs and takes umbrage over perceived disrespect. She shucks, shimmies and cuts her fellow Coward-ians with looks that positively wither whenever they ask stupid questions or offer unenlightened remarks. Lansbury does not ride a bicycle onto the Ahmanson Theatre stage – as Arcatis past have done – but she cuts a mighty fine figure in the stylish bohemian robes provided to her by Martin Pakledinaz. Playing her quirkiness wink-free, rooted in the fact that Madame Arcati lives her peculiar life with the utmost seriousness, Lansbury is utterly at home in this play and on the stage in general.
She does this eight shows a week…on tour…in this the second go-round of her Tony-Winning engagement with “Blithe Spirit.” The lady is 89 and sporting some mighty good genes in addition to her already legendary performance chops.
So is her presence an attention death knell to her co-stars? Not nearly.
In rebuilding “Spirit’ (which played Broadway in 2009), director Michael Blakemore has assembled the proceedings to complement Lansbury rather than to compete with her. Madame Arcati might be the instigator, but Coward’s ghostly ode to the choppy waters of love and marriage, rest just as largely on the shoulders of Charles Condomine and his wives, both living and deceased.
Yes, deceased. Ruth (played by Charlotte Parry) the second Mrs. Condomine is peacock secure in her position as the Lady of the House until a seance, arranged by Charles (Charles Edwards) and led by the aforementioned medium, summons back the spirit of his dead first wife, Elvira (Jemima Rooper), a free spirit when she was alive who is every bit as frisky in her ectoplasmic state. Charles is the only person who can see Elvira, although everyone can witness her ghostly tricks (rearranging furniture, transporting vases, etc.)
The love triangle scenes in which quarrels between the newly revived Elvira and Charles are driving Ruth bonkers have plenty of low comedy snap. Parry’s elegant and patrician Ruth contrasts smartly with Rooper’s curvy, good-time loving Elvira (the flapper bob is a nice touch). Coward would have us understand that Charles went in a different more stable direction when he remarried, but that the free-spiritedness of his Elvira days are still a wistful memory. Until he gets to relive them, bringing Elvira back and taking up life as a kind of “astral bigamist.”
Indeed, Charles Condomine (a role famously enacted by the playwright himself and by Rex Harrison on film) is a bit of a selfish and egocentric cad. Edwards radiates low-wattage likability over aggressive charisma, and it’s not exactly clear how relieved he is over finally getting some freedom. The women of “Blithe Spirit” (who include a peculiar servant played by Susan Louise O’Connor) are the play’s most delicious roles, but given their emotional instability (Ruth), attention-starved neediness (Elvira) and utter nuttiness (Madame Arcati), they are also the people (or spirits) from whom Charles is plotting his escape.
When that escape is nigh and the play is reaching its conclusion, the special effects kick in and the living room set designed by Simon Higlett’s starts to crumble like a visit to King Kong on the Universal Studios tour. Audiences should appreciate that the producers have invested in the ghostly bits of “Blithe Spirit” as whole-heartedly as Blakemore has invested in getting the Coward tone correct. “Blithe Spirit” has wit for the Coward-lovers and some eye candy for theater-hounds.
And it has Angela Lansbury. Nuff said.
“Blithe Spirit” continues 8 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sat., 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sun.; through Jan. 18, 2015. $25-115. (213) 972-4400, www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.