By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Noel Coward insisted that Blithe Spirit,
currently playing at Broadway's Shubert Theater, had no soul. The classic 1941 farce, written in a mere six days, revels in its own mechanics, calling as much attention to the plot as to the characters who keep the plot moving.
That may be for the best, since the story takes several macabre turns. A straight-faced production could get awfully dark when the ghost of a man's first wife tries to kill him so she can live with him in the afterlife, and then accidentally kills his second wife, leaving both women to haunt their beau. The trick is to keep the show as unsentimental as possible. As Coward said, "There's no heart in the play. If there was a heart, it would be a sad story."
That's easy enough for a playwright to say, of course. It's another matter for an actor to inhabit a role with equal parts sincerity and distance, but for the second time in her career, Jayne Atkinson is striking that balance.
In the Broadway revival, Atkinson plays Ruth, the second wife of successful novelist Charles Condomine. The role is remarkably rangy: Ruth begins as a skeptic, laughing along with Charles when he invites a medium named Madame Arcati over for a séance, but when the mystic produces the ghost of Charles' dead wife Elvira, Ruth gets incensed that her husband is giving so much attention to a ghost. And after her accidental death, when she returns as a spirit herself, Ruth unleashes quite a temper on her husband and Elvira.
She enjoys Ruth now, but Atkinson didn't always appreciate what the character offered. She first took the role ten years ago in a production at New Haven's Long Wharf Theater, alongside her husband Michel Gill, but at first, she was hesitant. "I wanted to play Elvira," she recalls, "but my director Joey [John] Tillinger said, 'Just wait. You'll love her. She can be incredibly funny."
Soon enough, Atkinson came around, and when she was offered the chance to revisit Ruth in the current production, helmed by Australian director Michael Blakemore, she quickly agreed. She says, "During these economic times, it was so wonderful to have a job, and I was drawn by the chance to be funny, and of course by the stellar cast."
Atkinson's co-stars include Rupert Everett as Charles, Christine Ebersole as Elvira, and, in a performance that earned her a fifth Tony award, Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati.
From the first day of rehearsals, the entire ensemble has considered how to keep the play sincere without becoming sentimental. "It's a delicate thing, because if you're fishing for a laugh you won't get it, so you have to play something like it's actually happening, and not like you're outside of it, telling the audience when to be amused," Atkinson says. "The more real I play something, the funnier it is, but if you were to play it too seriously, you'd lose the humor."
Atkinson says the solution partially lies in making "dry" choices---in giving Ruth subtler, more brittle responses that seem honest without going over-the-top. That's a very British attitude, and she says Blakemore helped her capture it. "I literally sat on my hands in rehearsals," she says. "That was very difficult for me because I'm a handsy actress, but it really helped to deepen my connection to this woman and her words."
Her co-stars have helped shape her performance as well. She credits Everett for making a surprising choice in the play's opening scene, so that when Charles asks the maid to leave the room, he shouts his order and scares her into running away. After she leaves, Atkinson and Everett share a laugh. She says, "After he did that, I realized he'd helped us find the only time in the play when we get to be jovial with each other. That's gives a new dimension to our relationship."
Though she's been working for decades-including a lengthy stint on the Fox drama "24"-Atkinson continues to learn from these moments with her collaborators. "Working with someone like Michael Blakemore or Rupert or Angela always helps me hone my craft," she says."It's the equivalent of a master class."
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