Coward's `Blithe Spirit' returns to Broadway with '80s touches

Blithe Spirit Comedy by No"el Coward. Directed by Brian Murray. Starring Richard Chamberlain, Blythe Danner, Judith Ivey, and Geraldine Page. First, a spot of background about ``Blithe Spirit,'' which opened last night at the Neil Simon Theatre. ``Very gay, superficial comedy about a ghost'' is the way No"el Coward described it in his 1941 ``Diaries.'' In ``Play Parade 5,'' Coward recorded that it was written in five days ``during one of the darkest periods of the war. ... Six weeks later it was produced and ran for four and a half years.''

On this side of the Atlantic, the cast of the successful New York production was headed by Clifton Webb, Peggy Wood, Mildred Natwick, and Leonora Corbett. Rex Harrison, Margaret Rutherford, Kay Hammond, and Constance Cummings acted in the 1945 British film version (still current in TV reruns). However, except for ``High Spirits,'' a 1964 musical adaptation starring Beatrice Lillie, Coward's supernatural antic has never again materialized on Broadway.

Which brings us to the Neil Simon and the revival staged by Brian Murray. My charming Alajalov poster for the original New York production dubs the play ``an improbable farce.'' In its new incarnation, ``Blithe Spirit'' proves just as improbable but somewhat less effervescently farcical.

The star-topped cast represents a formidable array of stage and screen credits. The debonair Richard Chamberlain plays Charles Condomine, the researching writer whose cynical experiment with mediumship produces the ghost of his first wife, Elvira. Madame Arcati, the psychic in the case, is acted with extravagant flourish by Geraldine Page. Blythe Danner is the mischievously worldly specter who creates havoc for all concerned, beginning with Ruth Condomine (Judith Ivey), Charles's understandably distraught wife.

Without attempting obviously to update ``Blithe Spirit,'' Mr. Murray and his cast have sought to execute Coward's verbal glissandos and sophisticated supernaturalism with a broadly realistic theatrical style closer to the 1980s than the 1930s. Mr. Chamberlain's Condomine progresses steadily from initial amused tolerance to high dudgeon as he discovers the lengths to which Elvira is prepared to go to make a ghost of him.

Husky-voiced Miss Danner personifies Elvira's ectoplasmic sexiness and Miss Ivey's Ruth defends her domestic turf with resolute indignation. Miss Page offers a Madame Arcati who could hold her own in any company of British eccentrics.

Besides the primary matter of histrionics, the tone of the revival expresses itself visually in Theoni V. Aldredge's costumes, particularly for Mme. Arcati and Elvira. Coward describes the medium as ``a striking woman, dressed not too extravagantly but with a decided bias toward the barbaric.''

On her first entrance, Arcati resembles a bag lady from outer space whose rainbow garb might have been dreamed up by Lily Tomlin.

Whether so attired or wearing jacket and knickers, her outfits are among the production's gaudier sight gags.

Elvira's diaphanous costume (and makeup) have been transformed from the luminous pearl gray of the original production to a pale mauve which makes her somewhat more earthly and less spectral. Such are a few of the noticeable details of a revival in search of a common denominator among a mixture of styles.

The cast includes Nicola Cavendish as the supercharged domestic who innocently holds the key to the supernatural events, William LeMassena as Dr. Bradman, and Patricia Conolly as his very twittering wife.

Finlay James designed the Kentish drawing room for Coward's ``improbable farce,'' with lighting (ghostly and otherwise) by Richard Nelson.

The musical theme is Irving Berlin's ``Always'' - with Marvin Hamlisch variations.

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