A Séance with Greatness

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

If you've still got holes on your holiday gift list or are looking for something to do with the in-laws from out of town, Blithe Spirit at the Ahmanson is the perfect theatrical distraction.

Now, the theater aficianados among you might turn up your noses and grumble 'you know, there are better Noel Coward plays' and you'd be right. Blithe Spirit is a simple situational comedy: the kind where each scene is buttoned up with a laugh and a curtain drop.

The plot line fairly straight-forward: our central character is a successful English novelist Charles Condomine. He's remarried the rather restrained Ruth, after his slightly steamier first wife Elvira died. On the night of the play - for a laugh and a little bit of research on his next novel - he's invited the medium Madame Arcati over for a séance. She accidentally conjures up his first wife Elvira and, as they say, hilarity ensues.

What's going to enchant you and even redeem the production for the snootiest of theatergoers, is Angela Lansbury's performance as the wacky Madame Arcati. Let's just say we should all be so lucky to have Ms. Lansbury's spirit when we're 89. While her performance is charming and witty from beginning to end, the centerpiece is undoubtedly her spiritual séance dance. You see, for Madame Arcati to commune with the spirit world she must feel 'the vibrations.' Once she's found her ethereal muse she's consumed with an interpretive dance that looks a bit like Merce Cunninham choreographing a rooster.

Now, too often we make a pilgrimage to see a great actor on their victory lap and it's a let-down. Faded glory and mumblings of "well, I remember her in. . . " Not so here. Ms. Lansbury crafts a Madame Arcati that's comedically marvelous not through bluster but a sort of wonderfully modest self-amazement. She seems as surprised by her powers as we are. She comes off like your wonderfully kooky aunt.

While the flashy bits are funny, you can appreciate a lifetime of stage work in a sidelong glance that provides the perfect button on a line or her voice which still travels through several registers on command. Ms. Lansbury's performance alone is worth the trip.

Fair warning - Madame Arcati is not the center of the show but don't worry you're in good hands. While the rest of the cast isn't quite as incandescent as Ms. Lansbury, they more than hold up their side of the bargain. As the wonderfully awkward maid, Edith, Susan Louise-O'Connor has several ingenious physical bits that are a riot. And while it's true this isn't Noel Coward's best writing, it's still sharper and funnier than most.

So why not buy a couple tickets as a gift. Or even better treat yourself to a night out with Blithe Spirit you won't regret it.

And don't forget your favorite LA theater companies or radio station when it comes to year-end giving.

Blithe Spirit plays at the Ahmanson Theater downtown through January 18.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Photo: (L-R) Susan Louise O’Connor (standing), Sandra Shipley, Charles Edwards, Angela Lansbury, Charlotte Parry and Simon Jones in Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit . (Joan Marcus)