That Old Witch

LTW dusts off 'Bell, Book and Candle,' but the play's gone a bit stale

Now on stage at Live Theatre Workshop: a daring 1950s play about miscegenation. Or is it a parable about the wacky Communists in our midst? Or does it have something do with drug addiction, or the nascent sexual revolution?

After all these decades, it's looking more and more like a simple romantic comedy with a supernatural twist: It's John Van Druten's Bell, Book and Candle.

Seems that in New York City, there's this witch passing for normal; her name is Gillian, and her witchy extended family includes a dotty old aunt and a mischievous brother named Nicky. Gillian has her eye on a handsome neighbor named Shep, and on a whim casts a spell to make the fellow fall in love with her. Trouble is, a witch by definition can't love, or at least mustn't fall in love, for if she does, she'll lose her powers.

Guess what all happens next? Really, take a minute and let your imagination run wild. I'll wait.

Gee, that didn't take long. So, right, love waxes and wanes and gets complicated by eccentric supporting characters, and Elizabeth Montgomery starts twitching her nose, and Susan Sarandon suddenly can play Dvorák with Jack Nicholson, but Alyson Hannigan goes all black-eyebally when she can't bring her girlfriend back from the dead--oh, hold on, all my sexy witches are getting mixed up, splashing around in that cauldron they've converted into a hot tub. Cavorting in the newt, they are.

Meanwhile, back at the theater, we're dealing with a script that's spent the past 50 years as the high school senior play, and somehow, when it's brought out to mingle with the grown-ups, it just doesn't seem very racy or metaphoric anymore. It still has funny bits, though, as long as you don't mind English Van Druten making his Manhattanites all sound like London sophisticates. It's sort of like they're in Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, but a bit less blithe.

Live Theatre Workshop's production picks up after a poor start. Perhaps because of the dialog's un-American activities, Jodi Rankin's Gillian is initially affected and artificial, old-fashioned in her stageyness. It must be contagious, because Christopher Moseley's Shep suffers the same affliction when he shares the stage with this Gillian, although he's better on his own. Fortunately, in the second and third acts, when Gillian is losing control of the situation, Rankin dislodges her broomstick and settles into a more natural emotive style, as does Moseley. The comic backup from Roberta Streicher, Cliff Madison and Michael Woodson is more consistent and comfortable.

One welcome aspect of this Sabian Trout-directed production is that Rankin doesn't try to make Gillian cute and wholesome. Sure, she seems like a fairly conventional person (at least she does after the first act), but she's also self-centered, conniving and potentially dangerous. Leave cuteness to Samantha and the second Darrin; this witch has an edge.

The action plays out in the round, so there's little opportunity to establish any atmosphere through the set design, and there isn't even much audio support to speak of once all the characters have been introduced. (It's not every day, though, that you get to hear Shostakovich quartets played during the intermissions of a comedy.) At least Peg Peterson has the sense to costume the witchy characters in black. Maybe it's too bad they settled on an orange tabby (Goldie Woodson) rather than a black cat to play Gillian's familiar, Pyewacket, but perhaps Live Theatre Workshop is finally making progress in colorblind casting.