On Stage: Last Hurrah

Comedic timing and a carefully chosen cast make National Theatre’s ‘Blithe Spirit’ an effortless hit. 

Sandra Shipley as Mrs. Bradman, Charles Edwards as Charles Condomine, Susan Louise O’Connor as Edith, Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati, Charlotte Parry as Ruth Condomine and Simon Jones as Dr. Bradman in Noël Coward’s "Blithe Spirit." (Photo by Joan Marcus)

as Mrs. Bradman, as Charles Condomine, Susan Louise O’Connor as Edith, as Madame Arcati, Charlotte Parry as Ruth Condomine and as Dr. Bradman in Noël Coward’s “Blithe Spirit.” (Photo by Joan Marcus)

National Theatre’s opening night audience for Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” came with an air of excitement and anticipation, mainly to see Angela Lansbury, and the legendary actress many only knew as the star of television’s “Murder She Wrote,” more than fulfilled every expectation.

There was also the added benefit in that Lansbury was part of a brilliant cast in a production smartly directed by that mastered every one of Coward’s witty lines – the pacing and timing was perfect. Washington is the last stop on the “Blithe Spirit” tour, and 89-year-old Lansbury’s last tour, but everything about the performance felt fresh and new, as though it was opening night moving on an extended tour.

Coward wrote “Blithe Spirit” in six days in 1941 to give Londoners something light and humorous in the opening years of World War II. In his farcical ghost story, his central character is socialite novelist, Charles (Charles Edwards who is familiar to those who watch “Downton Abby”). He invites Madam Arcati (Lansbury), a dotty, eccentric medium to his Kent home to conduct a séance. He is writing a novel about a murderous medium and is working on character development.

He invites another couple, Dr. Bradman (Simon Jones) and Mrs. Bradman (Sandra Shipley) to join him and his wife, Ruth (Charlotte Parry) to round out the séance. He advises them to maintain a serious demeanor so that Madam Arcati won’t be upset by their skepticism about probing into the occult.

Madam Arcati is a role any actor would love and when an acting genius like Lansbury overtakes and dominates it, she takes the wacky medium character into flights of comedic brilliance. Lansbury starts the séance with a madcap, jerky dance that is like some avian mating ritual merged with movements that are reminiscent of Egyptian tomb carvings. The two couples have difficulty in controlling themselves.

Madam Arcati never has had much success in summoning the spirit world, but on this occasion she actually produces Charles’s first wife who has been dead for seven years. Charles is the only one who can see Elvira (), a mischievous, fun-loving apparition who is the antithesis of the proper, straight-laced Ruth and wears a white diaphanous gown and a sassy, white, boyish-bob wig.

Even though they had a tempestuous marriage, Elvira concocts a scheme to have him join her in the spirit world by killing him in an accident. Inadvertently, however, her plan kills Ruth, who also returns, and the two wives battle, since Ruth is seeking revenge.

A desperate Charles calls for Madam Arcati to exercise the two troublesome ghosts. She is fascinated that she has had such an unexpected success, but after great effort fails to reverse the spell, it’s revealed that there is another source of psychic power no one ever anticipated. Eventually, the spirits are sent back to wherever they were and Charles sneaks away just in time for the now invisible ghosts seeking revenge to destroy ‘s impressive, book-lined drawing room set.

Rounding out the cast is the delightfully comic Edith (), the hapless servant. She steals nearly every scene as she rushes clumsy and incompetently in and out of the room. It’s a minor, supporting role, but one that is happily anticipated.

It is almost unnecessary to say that Lansbury is wonderful. Her effortless control of the ditzy clairvoyant, in a red wig that tops off the colorful costumes by , is a treasured theatrical experience. This production of “Blithe Spirit” is special because of the pacing and comedic timing of a carefully chosen cast who understands Coward’s clever writing. “Blithe Spirit” is one of the best touring shows to play the National in a long time.

“Blithe Spirit” continues through March 29 at The National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave., NW. Tickets are $48-$138 and available at 800-514-3849 or online

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