Medium rare

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday January 28, 2015
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Angela Lansbury plays a trouble-making psychic who leads<br>a seance for a skeptical group of English gentry in Noel Coward's <i>Blithe<br>Spirit</i> at the Golden Gate Theatre. Photo:<br>Joan Marcus
Angela Lansbury plays a trouble-making psychic who leads
a seance for a skeptical group of English gentry in Noel Coward's Blithe
Spirit
at the Golden Gate Theatre. Photo:
Joan Marcus

It's no surprise when Angela Lansbury gets a round of applause as she makes her first entrance in Blithe Spirit. That's a standard ritual when the presence of even fitful celebrity is revealed on a stage. But Lansbury gets a round of applause on each of her subsequent entrances, and these bursts of appreciation are no longer in recognition of past accomplishments, but in delight that we know that Noel Coward's 1941 comedy will once again take flight.

Lansbury won her most recent Tony Award (her fifth) for the 2009 Broadway revival of Blithe Spirit. She reteamed with director Michael Blakemore for a 2014 London run, and a version of that production is at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of a limited tour. Never mind that Lansbury is 89, for she delivers what is, quite simply, a wonderful performance regardless of age.

Lansbury is obviously the raison d'etre for this revival, though the Tony she won in 2009 was for best supporting actress. Madame Arcati, the dotty but serious psychic, provides a sort of comic relief to Coward's more brittle humor that fills up most of the play in her absence. The players who dominate these scenes are veterans of the Broadway and/or London productions, but they aren't always able to bring forth more than genial competence that is easy enough to bear knowing that a Madame Arcati entrance is always around the corner.

As Arcati, Lansbury's comic instincts are so keen that she doesn't need to overplay to win fierce attention. There is no waste in her performance, and even a seemingly casual gesture contains yet another delicious morsel we don't want to miss. When Beatrice Lillie played Madame Arcati in the musicalized High Spirits, Coward wrote in his diaries that her vaudeville antics drove him mad. One can only surmise how much he would appreciate Lansbury, who gets laughs by not treating the character as a clown. Even when she goes into a pre-seance dance that looks as much like an ostrich preparing to mate as anything else, we still believe in the character.

Madame Arcati is at first a plaything for novelist Charles Condomine. He has invited her to his country home to conduct a seance for research on a book about a bogus medium. But the session conjures the spirit of his late wife, the tantalizing Elvira, which does not please his current wife, the less glamorous Ruth, much at all. Madame Arcati is herself amazed at her ectoplasmic success, but is pretty much clueless about how to send Elvira back to the astral plane.

As Charles Condomine, the actual leading role, Charles Edwards does solid and increasingly interesting work, as the reality of having two wives on the premises turns the character from amiable husband into an increasingly waspish budding misogynist. Charlotte Parry nicely parlays the role of wife Ruth, though Jemima Rooper doesn't quite bring Elvira to vivid ethereal life. Director Blakemore saves the broadest strokes in his sensibly staged production for Edith, the awkward housemaid, whom Susan Louise O'Connor plays with occasional finesse. Simon Jones and Sandra Shipley are fine as neighbors who have a knack for always saying the wrong thing to Madame Arcati " provoking some of Lansbury's best reactions.

It all comes back to Lansbury, who has vowed that this excursion with Blithe Spirit is her final tour, and at age 89, we should take her at her word. The radiant performance she delivers doesn't need our goodwill to power it, but glows all the more because of it.

 

Blithe Spirit will run through Feb. 1 at the Golden Gate Theatre. Tickets are $45-$175. Call (888) 746-1799 or go to shnsf.com.