When Angela Lansbury takes the stage as Madame Arcati, the lovably outlandish medium in Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit," a supernatural charge is instantly detectable. This five-time Tony winner doesn't need levitating tricks or inexplicable table knocks — they'll come later — to provoke goose bumps.
Reprising her Tony-winning performance in Michael Blakemore's handsome production of "Blithe Spirit," which opened Sunday at the Ahmanson Theatre, Lansbury portrays Arcati with the wacky earnestness of an over-the-top acting guru. A cult crackpot who is at the same time a perfectly recognizable English eccentric, she addresses herself only to true believers.
Arcati has been summoned to the well-appointed home of Charles Condomine (Charles Edwards), a well-born, dry-martini-downing author, and his second wife, Ruth (Charlotte Parry), to conduct a séance. (The sumptuous setting of the play, a grand, book-lined house in Kent designed by Simon Higlett, is one of the production's keenest attractions.)
Charles needs material for his new book about a homicidal medium. He has invited Dr. Bradman (Simon Jones) and his wife (Sandra Shipley) to join in the fun, provided they participate with the utmost seriousness.
This won't be easy. Before entering a trance, Arcati goes through a herky-jerky dance routine that looked at from a certain vantage resembles the elaborate mating ritual of a species of colorful South American waterfowl.
What happens after Arcati makes contact with the other side is even more madcap: The ghost of Charles' first wife, Elvira (Jemima Rooper), visible only to Charles (and the audience), drops in with no plans of leaving. Her ethereal ensemble and fluttery manner can't hide her steely determination to win back her man by any means necessary.
Hearing her husband's anxious report of their new houseguest, Ruth accuses Charles of drinking too much; later, she calls him an "astral bigamist." Something has to give, but unfortunately Arcati doesn't know how to dematerialize the ectoplasmic hussy she has conjured.
Coward, who wrote the play in five days at the start of World War II to lift the spirits of his countrymen, labeled "Blithe Spirit" an "improbable farce." The work is expressly intended to divert, and while the situation is overextended, it largely succeeds through the silliness of the otherworldly plot and the playwright's diamond-sharp wit.
But the play isn't quite as blithe as its title suggests. Lurking under the preposterous mirth are sinister revelations and a fair amount of hostility.
There's a reason Harold Pinter, modern drama's master of territorial menace, directed a London revival: "Blithe Spirit" is filled with biting commentary on the insincerity and deceptions of marriage, the superficiality of grief and the murderous aggression that love can unleash.
Blakemore's production neither overplays nor skirts the dark side. This revival mostly wishes to entertain, but it also wants to honor the various hues of Coward's playwriting, its mix of aristocratic banter and brittleness.
Edwards' Charles and Parry's Ruth conduct themselves in the early going with impressive maturity. Both have buried a previous spouse and are beyond romantic illusions even if they remain vulnerable to jealousy and the nicks and scrapes that come with intimacy.
Parry's cool matter-of-factness is refreshing. She loves her husband but maybe not as much as she loves her independent judgment and freedom.
Edwards, known to many as Lady Edith's publisher lover on "Downton Abbey," is a paragon of smoothness, though he may be a tad too genial at the start. When later in the play he is called upon to expose the extent of Charles' self-involved nature, the exhibition he puts on is something of shock. His personality doesn't completely add up.
Having seen the irreplaceable Christine Ebersole perform the role of Elvira in Blakemore's Broadway production, I'm at something of a disadvantage in evaluating the vixen-like staginess in this portrayal by Rooper, who was in Blakemore's West End staging. Absurd to complain about the artificiality of a ghost, but I didn't believe there was ever any kind of human relationship between this Elvira and Charles.
Jones and Shipley are both excellent as the quietly bickering Dr. and Mrs. Bradman. As Edith, the nervous Nellie new servant, Susan Louise O'Connor delivers a novice-like, nervous Nellie performance.
The plum role in "Blithe Spirit" is Madame Arcati, and Lansbury, ageless at 89, fills the part with comic radiance. With her natural snap and spryness, it's very easy to picture this medium riding her bicycle all over rainy Kent.
Coward's work enables virtuosos who possess technique that's as polished as it is effortless to reach new heights. Lansbury might as well be flying across the Ahmanson stage. Seeing her in "Blithe Spirit" is as joyful as staring at a Christmas tree being decorated by birds and elves.
Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends Jan. 18.
Tickets: $25 to $140 (Ticket prices subject to change.)
Info: (213) 972-4400 or www.centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes