Blithe Spirit

Now playing at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway.

Few theater experiences are so alienating as the feeling that you and the rest of the audience are at odds. If the difference is slight, you can get caught up in the crowd, enjoying the production—or not—more than you otherwise would. But if the difference is more significant—they’re laughing, and you’re cringing; they’re sighing, and you’re sneering—the opposite tends to occur. The chasm grows larger as you become more self-conscious and resentful of the disconnect.

Or maybe that’s just me and my socially maladjusted family. My parents were visiting, and Mom wanted to see the new star-studded revival of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, which she first encountered back in a high school drama production when she was the understudy to Edith the maid. (Hee!) We all enjoyed the play—Mom, Dad, Sean, and me—to varying degrees, but honestly, Coward’s humor is wry: a classic dry, British wit, yes? It’s the sort of humor that makes you (and by you, I mean Mom, Dad, Sean, and me) grin and snicker, not howl and slap your leg and drown out the next five lines with your guffaws, so why in the world was the rest of the audience acting like we’d all been heavily dosed with nitrous oxide?

Blithe Spirit opens with a séance at the home of Charles Condomine (Rupert Everett) and his second wife, Ruth (Jayne Atkinson). A novelist, Charles has convened the event purely to get material for his new book, but Madame Arcati (Angela Lansbury), the medium, turns out to be more gifted than anyone realized: the evening ends with Charles’s late first wife, the beguiling Elvira (Christine Ebersole), brought back as a ghost. Only Charles can see Elvira, but she soon makes her presence known to Ruth, resulting in an amusingly disastrous three-way marriage that brings out everyone’s worst qualities.

Independently, the four principals each deliver a fun performance. Lansbury has the broadest character, and she gives Madame Arcati such goofy sincerity that even a mere line reading provokes a smile; the attempts to contact the spirit world, complete with an odd little dance that looks like it belongs in Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks, truly are laugh-at-loud funny, so completely does Lansbury commit to the nonsense. Everett’s character is more droll, which is, of course, precisely his specialty, and he, too, makes the most of his role. Ruth is generally the straight-woman, so to speak, but Atkinson plays her with delightfully aggrieved petulance (her Ruth isn’t as sensible as she thinks she is), and Ebersole’s Elvira reads like a bizarre cross between Marilyn Monroe and Betty Boop—a hoot.

But there is still something off about the production as a whole: weird timing issues, awkward blocking, actors stepping on one another’s lines. The play needs to build to its farcical climax, but under Michael Blakemore’s direction, it never finds the energy, sagging in Madame Arcati’s last scene at exactly the point when it should be bubbling over with chaos and mirth.

Even if the production had been better oiled, though, I still think our fellow audience members would have been over the top. It’s amusing to raise an eyebrow and refer to someone as “morally untidy,” for example, but it’s not uproarious. (The hyena of a woman next to me definitely needed to pace herself.) Similarly, the shenanigans with the phonograph being turned on and off never reaches such heights of hilarity that people should be gasping for breath. And later, when one character wakes in confusion from a trance, mistakenly concludes that she has been raped, and tears traumatized from the room—ha?—that’s a pitch-back chuckle at best. I’m bewildered as to why it should produce some of the loudest, most sustained laughter of the entire play.

I know this will sound dreadfully snobby, but I can’t help but wonder whether the audience was predisposed to find everything hysterically funny because the cast features movie stars. Would the people around me have found it that unbelievably side-splitting had the actors been just as talented but unfamiliar? There’s no way of knowing, of course. Maybe they would have. Maybe Mom and Dad just remembered the play as funnier than it truly is, only to be disappointed. Maybe Sean just isn’t a Nöel Coward kind of guy. Maybe I’m just a supercilious twit (okay, that’s probably quite likely). But regardless, the four of us walked out of the theater feeling bemused. We had a good time, but we didn’t seem to have nearly so good a time as the people all around us, and we never did settle on what to make of that.