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.

Up with “Up”!

“Up.” Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, directors. Pixar Studios, 96 minutes.

Perhaps my favorite film of the year so far, “Up” is an animated feature film from Disney’s Pixar studios, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s a children’s movie. This film offers story telling at its best, with a central character whose emotions are as real and as raw as those on the face of any A-list movie star. Children will like it too, with its cute-but-klutzy little boy scout eager to earn his “assisting the elderly” badge and its cheerful, eager-to-please dog Dug. But the real star of the show is Carl (voiced by Ed Asner), a curmudgeonly old man who just wants to be left alone so he can grieve away the rest of his life with memories of his beloved wife, Ellie.

Ellie’s presence fills the screen, even though she leaves it ten minutes into the film. Carl and Ellie are childhood sweethearts who meet through a common love of adventure. Ellie is the leader of the two, a perky tomboy whose adventure book she plans to fill with “Stuff I’m Going to Do.” Like many newlyweds, they promise each other that they will dream big, explore the world, and have lifelong adventures. And, like many married couples, they find that life intervenes to cut short their dreams. Savings intended for travel must be used for car repairs, medical bills, and living expenses, and the pages of the adventure book remain blank. The montage in which all of this happens lasts only ten minutes, but it is extremely moving, especially for those on the downhill side of dreaming.

When well intentioned social workers decide that Carl is no longer capable of caring for himself and condemn him to a retirement home, Carl decides to escape, lifting his house into the air on the power of thousands of helium filled balloons. This is where the film begins to soar. Carl has the adventure of a lifetime as he tries to fulfill Ellie’s dream of living in a house at the top of Paradise Falls in South America. The story has enough cute talking animals, menacing bad guys, clever antics, and that sweet klutzy boy scout to please the kids in the audience, but it is meaty enough to satisfy the adults who came with them.

Eventually the balloons start to lose their air and the house drops precariously close to the ground several miles short of their destination. Carl, determined to settle the house exactly where Ellie wanted it, begins pulling it along the ground toward Paradise Falls. Metaphorically the message is clear: like many of us, Carl has carried his house around on his back for his whole lifetime, and it has kept him from soaring to greater adventures. In “Walden” Thoreau warned that a modern American will “have spent more than half his life … before his wigwam will be earned….Houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed in them.”  Indeed, as we are discovering in this current economy, many have become overburdened by mortgages, figuratively carrying their houses around on their backs, first to keep up with the Joneses and now to keep ahead of foreclosure.

Ellie’s Adventure Book with its “Stuff I’m Going to Do” is also remarkably poignant for an animated film, reminding us that we need to dream, but we also need to modify the dream when newer dreams come along. This film is sad at first, but in the end it is as buoyant as the balloons that carry Carl forward to the next greatest adventure of his life. He reminds me of my stepfather, who thought his life had ended at the age of 75 when his wife of more than 50 years died. He had one foot in the old folks home when he met my mother, and the real adventure began. In the 22 years they were married, they traveled to Mexico, Europe, South America, the Caribbean, and Canada. They toured 49 of the 50 United States pulling a trailer and camping along the way. Once they made a wrong turn on the New Jersey Turnpike, went through the Lincoln Tunnel, and ended up pulling their trailer through Times Square. That must have been quite a sight for the tourists–not unlike Carl’s little house being transported by helium-filled balloons! It wasn’t Paradise Falls, but for Mom and Wally it was paradise, and not at all what Wally thought his final quarter century would be. I think another Wally–Walt Disney–would be very pleased to see the heights to which Pixar has taken his animation studio with this humorous, intelligent, witty and thought-provoking film.

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