Angela Lansbury in Blithe Spirit

“Blithe Spirit.” Noel Coward, playwright. Michael Blakemore, director. Shubert Theater, Broadway.

Here’s one of my immutable rules of theater enjoyment: If there’s a play by George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, or Noel Coward in production, don’t miss it. Wilde and Shaw virtually invented the drawing room “comedy of manners” that exposed hypocrisy and boorishness among the Victorian elite, and Coward perfected it for the Edwardian age. Their plays are witty, quotable, acidic, light hearted, and dead on.  This season the Shubert Theater is presenting Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit,” and no matter how many times of seen it, it’s always great fun.

One of the reasons so many high school drama clubs choose these veteran playwrights so often is that they are virtually indestructible. The dialogue is so witty that it carries itself, even if the performances are amateurish and wooden. But in the hands of virtuoso performers like the dapper Rupert Everett and the divine Angela Lansbury, the result is sheer perfection.

Charles  (Everett), a mystery writer, is the model for Pierce Brosnan’s “Remington Steele” character–handsome, debonair, utterly at home in a tuxedo, and totally useless in the home. As the play begins, Charles and his wife, Ruth (Jayne Atkinson), an imperious, no-nonsense socialite who rules the house and terrorizes the servants, have invited some friends to join them for a séance. They don’t believe in this stuff of course, but Charles wants to use the experience for a character he is developing in his latest novel.

Enter the star of this show, Angela Lansbury, as the medium Madame Arcati, who very much believes. Dressed incongruously in gypsy velvets and country tweeds, there is nothing “medium” about this larger-than-life Arcati. She sniffs the air for ectoplasm, listens for spirit voices, douses the lights, and prances vigorously around the stage like a hunter after her prey, in a dance that seems to be channeling the art deco poses of early modern dancers Vaslav Nijinsky and Isadora Duncan. This woman is 83 years old, mind you, dancing about the stage like a 4-year-old, bouncing over furniture and humming tunelessly to summon the spirits of the dearly departed.

And seeming to have the time of her life. Even when she forgets her lines (which happened two or three times at the performance I attended) she makes it part of the character, sputtering like a dotty old woman who can’t think of the proper word until the other character gives it to her, just as you would if you were talking to your own dotty Aunt Ida. Brilliant. Simply brilliant.

During the séance, Madame Arcati unwittingly conjures up Charles’s first wife, Elvira (Christine Ebersole), who then sticks around to haunt and torment her widowed husband and his new wife. Ebersole is considered the new Grand Lady of the Stage, modern Broadway’s answer to Helen Hayes or Gertrude Lawrence. She has won two Tony’s and numerous nominations. But for the life of me I can’t understand why.

Ebersole began her acting career in soap operas (“Ryan’s Hope,” “One Life to Live”) and she should have stayed there. She plays every role with a Judy Holiday whine and rushes each line as though she is worried the director will cut to commercial before she is finished. Good actors don’t just act, they react to events and interact with other actors. Not Miss Ebersole, however. I have seen her enter a scene, shout in agony, “You’re hair!” and THEN turn to look at her onstage daughter’s freshly shorn locks (as M’Lynn  in “Steel Magnolias.”) As Elvira, the ghost of Charles’s first wife, Ebersole is lovely to look at but painful to hear.

But as I said up front, you really can’t ruin a play by Coward. The snappy dialogue, the opulent sets, the stage direction, and the story itself carry it along. And then there is the angelic Angela. The title character of “Blithe Spirit” is meant to be Elvira, who normally steals the show with her ghostly tantrums and ectoplasmic pranks. But no one could steal this production from the sprightly  clutches of Angela Lansbury. After more than 70 years onstage and in films, she is truly a blithe spirit–happy, carefree, and, like a spirit, able to transcend her mortal octogenarian body and float across the stage, timeless and endearing.

My second immutable rule of theater enjoyment is this: if Angela Lansbury is in the cast, cross the continent, if necessary, to see it.

The Brothers Bloom

School’s out for summer, and teen comedies abound. Most of them are trite, raunchy, potty-mouthed, formulaic– and immensely successful. “The Hangover” is one of them. Its big-budget advertising throughout the spring made it look clever and entertaining, and its 80% approval rating on rottentomatoes gave it an air of respectability from the critics. Largely a knock-off of the “Dude Where’s my Car?” genre in which several friends must retrace their steps after a night of drunken debauchery, “The Hangover” follows the shenanigans of several young men who wake up from a drunken stupor after a bachelor party in Las Vegas. One is missing a tooth, another is sporting a wedding band, and somebody’s baby is in the closet. Can they retrace their steps and find the groom before the wedding begins? Would they be doing the bride any favors if they do? The film, pushing the well-crumpled envelope of raunch, earned not only that 80 % approval rating on rottentomatoes but $45 million in its first week.

At the same time, “The Brothers Bloom,” a clever, intelligent, well-crafted crime caper, opened in a few grubby art houses in cities like New York and LA,  earning a respectable 62 % rottentomatoes rating but a meager $2 million in its first month. There’s just no accounting for taste these days. If you want to know more about “The Hangover,” go see it yourself. Meanwhile, I’m going to review “The Brothers Bloom.”

The key to a perfect con job is to give the “mark” what he or she wants,  so that when the con is over, the mark doesn’t come back looking for revenge. A good con always relies on persuading the mark to participate in a slightly shady deal that seems to go terribly wrong, so the mark ends up actually thanking the con artist for helping him or her escape publicity or punishment. In a movie about con artists, the audience wants to be conned as well–as much as we pride ourselves in being able to figure it out, we don’t really want to know how it’s going to end until it’s over. Being taken for a ride is the whole point of the film, and we want to enjoy the ride every step of the way.

“The Brothers Bloom” is just that kind of film, one that delights the audience in every scene. It begins with two young brothers (Max Records and Zachary Gordon), dressed solemnly in white shirts and black hats, as they are shipped from foster home to foster home after executing cons in every town. Young Stephen has discovered that people are predictable, and if you plan carefully enough, you can con them into–or out of– just about anything. He’s a storywriter at heart, planning his complex schemes and then bringing them to life. Bloom, who obviously worships his brother, will do anything to please him, but we can see that he yearns to stay put and treat people as friends instead of plotlines.  The two young actors portray these conflicting characters brilliantly.

The boys grow up, with Mark Rufallo and Adrien Brody stepping into the roles of Stephen and Bloom. Their accomplice, Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi from “Babel”), is an exotic Asian beauty who never speaks but can handle anything they ask her to do, from seducing a mark to wiring explosives. Bang Bang provides some of the funniest moments in the film, mostly in the form of bizarre props, deadpan looks, and inexplicable actions performed in the background while the main characters are speaking–as when she methodically peels an apple, drawing our attention to the steely glint of her knife, and then tosses the apple over her shoulder and gnaws nonchalantly on the peel.

A con game works because the scam artist can predict what the mark will do under controlled circumstances. In this case the mark is Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz), an eccentric billion-heiress who collects skills (like skateboarding and accordion playing) instead of stamps and crashes her Lamborghini almost daily. She is anything but predictable. For example, if a bicyclist hits the side of your car and goes flying over your windshield, you’ll stop and see if the bicyclist is hurt, right? I knew this film was going to be different as soon as the mark drove away from the injured bicyclist, backed up, drove a few more feet, backed up again, and then crashed over the embankment into the trees. Predictable reaction? Hardly. The Brothers Bloom were in trouble, and that keeps the audience guessing, too.

The caper takes us on an international romp through several European cities as it entertains us  with quirky characters, unexpected twists, comic-book headings, and a jazzy musical score by Nathan Johnson that heightens the off-beat tone. You may or may not figure out the ending, or how many twists will play out before the conclusion. But that doesn’t matter, because the journey itself is so much fun.

However, there is nothing comic-book about the relationships between the two brothers, and that’s what makes this more than a simple takeoff on “The Sting.” One orphaned brother seeks adventure and freedom, the other seeks hearth and home. The story is the classic homeward journey, based (according to director/screenwriter Rian Johnson) on James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” The brothers’ names come from Joyce’s characters, Stephen Daedalus and Leopold Bloom, and “Penelope” is, of course, a reference to Ulysses’s longsuffering wife in Homer’s “Odyssey” (on which Joyce’s “Ulysses” is based). The film also sports a seedy Faganesque character with one cycloptic eye, “Diamond Dog” (Maximilian Schell). These classical allusions give this film some depth even as its offbeat direction and ragtime score give it a lighthearted tone. “The Brothers Bloom” might not be able to compete at the box office with today’s raunchier comedies,  but discerning audiences (like our readers) may enjoy it much more.

Waiting for Godot

“Waiting for Godot.” Samuel Beckett, playwright. Anthony Page, director. Studio 54, Broadway.

“Waiting for Godot,” Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece of existential angst, opened at Studio 54 on Broadway this spring with a sparkling cast and towering set. The script, about two men waiting on a dreary road for someone named Godot to come, is deliberately spare, allowing for multiple layers of interpretation. We don’t know who Godot is or why they are waiting for him. Many viewers have suggested that Godot represents God (the name certainly contributes to that theory). Others say it is simply about the existential futility of life. Once, when asked about the Godot/God connection, Beckett slyly responded that “Godot” sounds like a French word for “shoe,” and shoes, as well as word plays, figure prominently in the play.

I think the play’s maddening ambiguity is its greatest strength, engaging its audiences intellectually, emotionally, and even spiritually. When some colleagues of mine at the University of Florida took a touring production of “Godot” to the state correctional facility, they worried that the inmates might be bored by the lack of action in the play. Instead, these men were enthralled. Accustomed to a lifetime of tedium and waiting for parole, they completely empathized with these characters who wait for a signifying moment that never comes. They know what it means to have “Nothing to do,” as one of the characters says repeatedly.

Often “Godot” is set on a nearly empty stage to emphasize the bleakness of the play’s atmosphere, but this current production is dominated by set designer Santo Loquasto’s magnificent mountain of gray-white rocks on which the characters climb and tumble as they strut their hour on the stage. Estragon (Nathan Lane) and Vladimir (Bill Irwin), the two men who wait for Godot, are similarly covered in white dust, suggesting perhaps that they are in purgatory–dead, but unaware of their deaths. In the center of this rock garden is a large, barren tree–another dark biblical allusion perhaps–that tempts them with thoughts of suicide.

Gogo and Didi, as they call each other, are friends, but they bicker like an old married couple as they argue about whether to continue waiting for the mysterious Godot or move on. Lane and Irwin, known for their onstage buffoonery, bring a more somber comedy to these roles, reminiscent of Emmett Kelley’s sad sack clowns. They wrestle with Gogo’s boots, doff each other’s hats, engage in word play, and sing silly songs as they wait and wait, but the resulting pathos is divine comedy, not the usual slick shtick.

Midway through the first act, Pozzo (John Goodman) arrives, driving an overburdened slave with the unlikely moniker “Lucky” (John Glover) in front of him. This Pozzo bursts onto the stage alive with color and pomposity. His massive, gluttonous stature is a perfect contrast to the bleakness of the rest of the scene. He struts, he orates, he even plays the beached walrus to hilarious applause at one point in the second act. If Godot is God, then Pozzo must be the jolly Satan, luxuriating in physical pleasures at the expense of his ensnared lackey, Lucky. The men don’t quite know what to make of this unlikely visitor, and neither do we. But we’re glad that he has arrived, and even more glad when he returns in the second act.

Tourists who attend this play expecting a riotous romp equal to Nathan Lane’s Tony winning turn in “The Producers” will walk away wondering what all the hype is about. But thoughtful audiences who enjoy having something meaty to ponder and discuss, long after the curtain falls, will be thrilled by this brilliant production of one of the 20th century’s most praised plays.

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