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NY Theater Reviews

Jayne Atkinson and Angela Lansbury/Ph: Robert J. Saferstein

SOMETHING IN THE AIR

By SANDY MACDONALD

A certain irrepressible spirit - and her name is not Elvira - kicks up her heels...

Angela Lansbury is so enchanting in Blithe Spirit, she not only steals the show but walks off with the title. The "spirit" in question is meant to be Elvira (Christine Ebersole ), the spoiled, fractious late wife of novelist Charles Condomine (Rupert Everett), whom Madame Aracati (Lansbury at her loopiest) happens to conjure in the course of a demo seance that Charles has set up to further his research. The little interpretive dances that Lansbury improvises as warm-ups are so adorable, they're reason enough to see this competent, if not always transporting production.

Everett is perfectly cast as Condomine: unflaggingly debonair, yet childishly petulant in the manner of men of that era and class. He's a good match for Peter Davison's gorgeous drawing-room set, which would seem to suggest either that Condomine is to the manner born or that his writing career is going swimmingly. However, he's not well served by the choice of mates, past and present.

As current spouse Ruth, Jayne Atkinson gives the game away too quickly. Ruth is meant to be one of those self-styled muse/handmaidens whose solicitous overtures cloak a need to control. She's a crypto-martinet, dead set on concealing what lurks beneath the velvet glove. This Ruth, however, rides Charles from the get-go. She's so schoolmarmish and stodgy, you half-wonder how he happened to marry his governess.

The deceased Elvira is Ruth's opposite: lovely, flighty, unrepentantly hedonistic. Ebersole is a bit too earth-bound to carry off the role, and the illusion is not helped by her accent, which hovers, honkingly, midway across the Atlantic. Trying to play up Elvira's ghostliness, costume designer Martin Pakledinaz has draped Ebersole in a diaphanous chiffon gown that fully covers her hands - the visual equivalent of applying a mute. How is she supposed to express herself fully without the use of gesture? Ebersole is at her best when she's truly disembodied - during the entr'actes, when her recorded voice, singing sentimental standards, accompanies music-hall-style title cards.

Young Susan Louise O'Connor is quite the little scene-stealer as the Condomines' gawky maid-in-training -she even manages a levitation of sorts, when wrestling with an uncooperative tea-tray. Seeing her shine, one can't help recalling a certain maid who went toe to toe with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in the 1944 movie Gaslight - Lansbury's inaugural film role, which earned her an Oscar nomination at age 19.

Exuding the can-do attitude of a dyed-in-the-wool Girl Guide, sniffing after specters like a rabid bloodhound, going all orgasmic at the slightest sign of a manifestation, Lansbury proves that she has still got it - the vitality that shoots sparks across the footlights. She seems to be having the time of her life. It seems safe to predict that you will, too.