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“Blithe Spirit” at the Ahmanson: Spiritualism, Cynicism, Comedy, and a Star

Angela Lansbury, in her Tony-winning role, headlines the cast of "Blithe Spirit" at the Ahmanson

Angela Lansbury, in her Tony-winning role, headlines the cast of “Blithe Spirit” at the Ahmanson

When a classic play is revived, there are several reasons to go see it, if it’s done well. The first is to rediscover an old friend, particularly a beloved one. The second is, in the case of a major professional production, often to see a famous person or persons play a part he or she has wanted to do a long time. If the results of either desire are met, the show can be considered a satisfying success. Of course, sometimes the results can stun – become more powerful than either of the expectations above would prepare one for – as in Cecily Tyson’s recent “The Trip to Bountiful” – but one should not expect that. More often, as in the production of “Blithe Spirit” which has just arrived at the Ahmanson, the result proves satisfying in large part because of the juxtaposition of an experienced actor or actress having fun, and an old friend of a play: well done, even if not stunning.

The Noel Coward classic appears here in a touring production fashioned on the 2009 revival which won Angela Lansbury her fifth Tony Award. Well produced, the result is funny and almost appealingly grating, just as it should be. The story itself has much to say about relationship – a theme to which Coward returned with absolute regularity.

Charles Condomine, a skeptical novelist living in a British village, invites the local medium to conduct a seance at the house he shares with his second wife, Ruth, as part of research into a new book. In the process of the seance, and to his shock, his first wife’s ghost appears, but only to him. The misconstructions and chaos begin almost immediately, witnessed by the seance’s other participants – a practical doctor and his wife. The anxieties which erupt are only exacerbated by an uptight village girl-housemaid. You know this is not going to end well.

Director Michael Blakemore allows tight timing and, thanks to Simon Higlett’s set, just enough special effects to keep the story moving and increasingly funny. The performers make the characters, though as comic as they need to be, also as real as the situation and script will allow. This is important in a Coward play.

Charles Edwards exudes confidence and charm as the novelist. Charlotte Parry gives his wife that genteel but not glamorous look required of the part, and the straight-spined society edge. Simon Jones and Sandra Shipley provide such a classic “country doctor and wife” they looked as if they stepped out of a late-30s British film.

Jemima Rooper, as the ghostly first wife, Elvira, has an absolutely delightful time – in many cases, it is her energy which emphasizes the comedy and sets the pace for the entire piece. Likewise, Susan Louise O’Connor, as the dim, literal, and countrified maid provides a certain amount of understated commentary on stuffiness, just through her presence and the occasional wry look.

And then, of course, there is Angela Lansbury, the actress whose 70-year acting career (she was in “Gaslight” at age 18, believe it or not) has brought her to this theater, this part and this celebration. She’s having a ball, which is both a good thing and perhaps a bit dodgy for the play itself on occasion. As Madame Arcati, the once-celebrated London medium residing in Condomine’s village, she is supposed to be a bit unique and over the top. Her abandon, and that of the now unrestricted Elvira, provide balance to the ordered structure of everyone else’s lives. And Lansbury does “odd” well. The trick is not to do it too repetitively or for too long at a stretch, and sometimes she dances pretty near the limit.

Special kudos to the meticulous work of Higlett’s, Bill Butler’s and Martin Pakledinaz’s costume designs, which place the piece neatly into a specific period. Most particularly the costuming of the ghost (later, ghosts) proves clever without being overly dramatic. The production is brilliantly set, with quoted notes from the original script between acts, terrific Coward music recorded in period, and an overarching sense of time, place and attitude.

And that is why to go: go for the technical accuracy, the clean and crisp production, and the well performed, tight, humorous, charming little play. It says nothing new, but it says what it has always said in what is mostly describable as the best possible way. And go for Lansbury, for even when she oversteps a bit, she does so with a kind of panache worth taking in. Certainly, at 89, she can be granted a little license.

What: “Blithe Spirit” When: Through January 18, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center, 135. N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $140 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

Coward’s “A Song at Twilight” – a great playwright looks in the mirror

Sharon Lawrence and Bruce Davison spar in "A Song at Twilight" at the Pasadena Playhouse [photo: Michael Lamont]

Sharon Lawrence and Bruce Davison spar in “A Song at Twilight” at the Pasadena Playhouse [photo: Michael Lamont]

One of the patterns in the lives of great modern comic playwrights comes as they move into the second half of life. At that point their work tends to balance the usual humor with a more serious undertone. Perhaps they reach for something new. More likely, a greater life experience with its backward looks and painful mistakes balances out their humorous view of the world with something nearer the heart.

Most certainly this happened to the great Noel Coward – a man of wit, bite and fame. He was also troubled along with many fellow men of letters by the cost of that fame, as their lives were lived in the spotlight in a Britain where homosexuality in men, including themselves, was punishable by imprisonment. Just a year before this Neanderthal law was repealed, he offered up a new, and now comparatively obscure play “A Song at Twilight,” about the devil’s compromise men such as himself were forced into. It proves stunning in its honesty, as well as carrying with it the traditional wry tension between the sexes.

Now at the Pasadena Playhouse, “A Song at Twilight” highlights the struggles of being a gay man from the inside, written by someone all too familiar with the risks connected in his own lifetime to simply being who he was.

Sir Hugo Latymer, a celebrated novelist of international fame, is relaxing in a suite with a beautiful view of the Alps, being waited upon by his favorite hotel employee, the charming and efficient Felix, as his wife Hilde sorts out his affairs. Suddenly he encounters – once again – the woman with whom he once had an affair, who arrives with substantive proof that his life in public is not his private truth. The results mix humor, fondness, terror and a gradual understanding of the damage a hidden life has caused not only Latymer but all those with whom he is closely connected.

Bruce Davison gives Latymer the sharp wit and casual elegance as he stands in for Coward’s own view of life. His timing is quick, and his pathos understated. It’s a beautifully and correctly underplayed part. As his German wife, Roxanne Hart brings an innate sadness to the brusk, efficient woman. Indeed, it underscores the price paid by anyone fond of the person whose lie becomes a life’s work.

Sharon Lawrence and Roxanne Hart as the two sides of care for a famed yet innately frightened man

Sharon Lawrence and Roxanne Hart as the two sides of care for a famed yet innately frightened man

Sharon Lawrence’s sharp-edged, wise yet often brutal wit as the dreaded former lover Carlotta is just the right foil for Davison, and interestingly for Hart as well. The contrasts between characters, and yet their interconnectedness at certain moments, is a sign of both the playwright’s and the actors’ art. Zach Bandler makes the affable Felix a more fully drawn character than many a hotel employee in such plays, radiating both efficient professionalism and an underlying sympathy.

Yet, as is often the case with Coward’s work, in the end what one remembers is the feel and theme of the piece. This is enhanced by Art Manke’s beautifully structured direction, which keeps what could easily become a kind of panel discussion on its feet and human. Tom Buderwitz’s set design is, in itself, a character – filled with grandeur and openness even as its central occupant finds himself incapable of at least the second and to some extent the first.

In short, the play and this production become deeply moving even as they often prove humorous. Consider how many people in that dark century of law had to live a lie in order to avoid being jailed for being themselves. Would this were a tale only told in the past tense, but as recent actions in central Africa and Russia attest, people in some parts of the world still live under that same Damoclesian sword.

And how fascinating that in the same week as this lovely production opened, Coward’s own home country allowed same-sex couples to marry. Coward would have been pleased.

What: “A Song at Twilight” When: Through April 13, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $44 – $64 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

The Art of Comedy: The sheer delight of “Fallen Angels” at the Pasadena Playhouse

Pamela J. Gray and Katie MacNichol create the delight in "Fallen Angels" at the Pasadena Playhouse

Pamela J. Gray and Katie MacNichol create the delight in “Fallen Angels” at the Pasadena Playhouse

We all need a good laugh. Indeed, who among us does not appreciate performers with expert comic timing. Anyone who has ever told a joke knows how much even good material can suffer if the timing is off, and how much even vapid material can be enhanced by someone who, in common parlance, tells a joke well.

And when you are dealing with world-class wit – a script by Noel Coward – then the addition of beautifully executed performances can become a wondrous thing. As example, please see “Fallen Angels,” now at the Pasadena Playhouse. At its least it is a charming send-up of stuffy society marriages. At its best it contains some of the funniest moments of physical comedy I’ve seen onstage in some time.

It is the 1920s. Julia Sterroll and her longtime best friend Jane Banbury have successful, if not blissful marriages to substantial, if stolid men. When both husbands leave on a golf trip, the two women would be fine doing things together, until they each receive word that the Frenchman each in turn had a premarital affair with is about to arrive in London. Anticipation and dread fill the air, as each woman deals with long-squelched passions, mixed as they are with their mutual jealousies and their foundational friendship.

As the two women wait for their old love’s arrival they almost unintentionally drift into a champagne-based alcoholic haze. Never has drunkeness been so funny, if only because both characters are essential ladies in spite of all. Pamela J. Gray and Katie MacNichol, as Julia and Jane respectively, have that rare ability for a physical comedy just at the edge of being over-the-top: hysterical but not ridiculous.

Added to this, Mary-Pat Green proves a delight playing their overly qualified but somewhat detached maid, an observer marking the silliness and adding to the household upheavals. Loren Lester and Mike Ryan offer up the staunchly practical, comparatively puritan husbands who are forced by the end to see their wives in somewhat different light. Elijah Alexander is briefly but flamboyantly the awaited French lover.

Still, it is Gray and MacNichol who rule this piece. Under the deft hand of director Art Manke, who lets them fill the room always with just enough held back, their actions leave the audience helpless with laughter even as the crisp Coward dialogue propels them forward.

Tom Buderwitz has created a flashy Victorian flat, with lovely period detail, for this romp to live in. David K. Mickelsen’s costuming – particularly MacNichol’s very period evening dress – not only add to the comedy but provide some rather humorous statements about that period’s fashions as well.

“Fallen Angels” is not profound, nor was it intended to be. It is, rather, a chance to see great, silly comedy done with remarkable expertise. And what a treat that can be: something very funny done very well by the very expert. Get tickets before they disappear, as word of this delight is certain to spread quickly.

What: “Fallen Angels” When: Through February 24, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $32 – $62, with premium seating available for $100 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.Pasadena Playhouse.org

I’ll Be Loving You… Always? – A charming “Blithe Spirit” in Whittier

The cast of “Blithe Spirit” holds a seance with surprising results at WTC

Of all the plays Noel Coward wrote in a long and storied career, “Blithe Spirit” may be the most fun. As always, a toss-up of society norms, it offers up a clever mix of mysticism, human foibles, misunderstandings and outrage, with a little class consciousness thrown in for good measure. Never quite slapstick, never too deep to be laughable, it offers up truly fun parts for actors to move into, and guaranteed laughs.

As proof take in the new, and quite polished production at Whittier Community Theatre. There this company shows off all its best stuff, from a delightfully appropriate set to the comic timing so necessary in a piece like this one.

The story begins innocently enough. Writer Charles Condomine lives with his second wife, Ruth, in a lovely country house. As part of research for his new book, he invites a local woman with a long history as a medium, Madame Arcati, to conduct a seance at his house. She proves to be quite a character, entertaining both the Condomines and their equally skeptical friends the Bradmans as she warms up for the deed itself. Still nobody, not even the new and rather awkward maid, could be prepared for what Madame Arcati conjures up.

Director Roxanne Barker has gathered together a highly polished cast, and has a tight understanding of comic timing. As a result, this thing hums along from laugh to laugh with a deceptive effortlessness.

Norman Dostal proves impressive as the rather quickly nonplussed Charles. Combined with the equally sharp renditions of Shannon Fuller as Ruth and Andrea Stradling as the seance’s surprise, the central comedy hums like a top. It’s a delight to watch. Lauri Boehlert finds the balance in Madame Arcati, making her a bit outrageous but serious about her craft, and avoiding the temptation toward buffoonery which often weakens the part. It is Arcati’s very earnestness which cements the humor – a much more satisfying outcome.

Richard De Vicariis and Patty Rangel, as Dr. and Mrs. Bradman, also play it straight, becoming charming witnesses to the increasingly unpredictable Condomine household. Julie Kirkman has a ball with the inept country girl trying to quell her impulse to dash everywhere – the Condomine’s new maid.

Kudos to set designer Suzanne Frederickson for making really terrific use of the Whittier Community Center stage, and creating a convincing country house. Nods also to Karen Jacobson and Shon LeBlanc for period- and character-appropriate costumes.

Indeed, the only troubling thing about this production had to do with the microphones they have place to carry the voices of the actors when they are upstage. They ring hollow, and seem cranked up a bit too high, bringing artificiality to an otherwise neatly polished production.

“Blithe Spirit” is just fun, and this is a good version. Also entertaining is the music between scenes, all of it music of Noel Coward’s, and some of it even sung by him. How much more in the spirit of the thing can you get?

What: “Blithe Spirit” When: Through June 16, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $12 general, $10 seniors/students Info: (562) 696-0600 or ww.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

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