Friday, January 18, 2013

Entertaining BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE at Cleveland Play House

Roy Berko
(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

Since it moved into its new digs at the Allen Theatre, Cleveland Play House has been on a roll.  Attendance has skyrocketed, they are operating three theatres with spaces that allow for creative and technically complicated staging.  The artistic staff has selected challenging and interesting shows, including LOMBARDI, IN THE NEXT ROOM (OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY), RADIO GOLF, RED, THE WHIPPING MAN, ONE NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN.  Even their recent holiday show, A CAROL FOR CHRISTMAS, though not the aesthetic quality of other productions, was an attempt to bring positive attention by melding the talent of a local playwright with a local writer, and to create a new local holiday tradition. 

One can only wonder why the powers that be decided to pick John Van Druten’s lightweight comedy, BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE for its winter opener.

The program indicates that the play is a “classic.”  By what standard?  It is definitely not an American classic in the vein of LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, OUR TOWN, or DEATH OF A SALESMAN.  It doesn’t compare with such classic stage comedies as YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU, HARVEY or THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER.  In fact, if a list of classics had to include a Van Druten play, it would most likely be I AM A CAMERA, which was transformed into the compelling musical CABARET.

BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE, which opened in November of 1950 ,and closed the next June, received mediocre reviews in its Broadway run in spite of a cast that included Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer.  The script would probably have faded from view if not for the Kim Novak, Jimmy Stewart 1958 movie.

The plot concerns Gillian Holroyd, a witch who casts a spell on book publisher Shepherd Henderson, her attractive upstairs neighbor.   Numerous complications get in the way of their romance including her uninhibited fellow-witch, Auntie, who lives in the same building as the potential lover and keeps playing tricks on Shepherd.  Nicky, Gillian’s immature brother, is a warlock who likes also to play tricks, and Sidney is a writer who Henderson wants to sign to write a volume on witchcraft. There is also the issue of Pywacket, Gillian’s cat, who is actually the witch’s familiar companion, who helps carry out her mystic deeds.  And there is the problem that witches must choose between the life of a bedeviler or that of a normal person.  Living in both worlds is not acceptable.

The title of the play refers to the methods used by the Catholic Church to cast out demons and witches, which gets a fleeting reference in the script.

The CPH production, under the direction of artistic director Michael Bloom, is entertaining.  It misses out, however, on some of the potential fun by minimizing visual illusions that usual make fantasy comedies work, including explosions, turning people into other people or things, magic tricks, and vanishing acts, which are expected by audiences.  There are only a couple of minor tricks, and using a fake cat in place of a real animal, cut down on the “oh-ah” factor when animals appear on stage (e.g., Sandy in the musical ANNIE and Bruiser, the Chihuahua, in LEGALLY BLONDE).  Some of the most delightful moments center on the dancing segments while set pieces are being adjusted.

Georgia Cohen is properly sultry as Gillian, but a little more Rosalind Russell-like delightfulness might have helped.   Patricia Kilgarriff is amusing, full of nervous energy and Betty White cuteness as Miss Holroyd, “Auntie.”  Marc Moritz gives nice eccentric energy to the role of Sidney Redlich, an alcoholic  writer,  and Jeremy Webb is properly boyish as Gillian’s immature brother.  He makes it easy to imagine his glee when the character supposedly turns all the traffic lights on Park Avenue green at the same time.

Eric Martin Brown has the matinee idol good looks, but fails to create a real person as Shepherd.  His lines often lack reality and there is little romantic spark between him and Gillian.

Russell Parkman’s three-level set works well, but the oversaturation of colors and objects overwhelms the senses and distracts from the performers.  David Kay Mickelson’s costumes are era and mood correct.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE is a pleasant, but not compelling evening of theatre.  The dated script doesn’t do much to help keep the Cleveland Play House’s recent run of masterful works rolling.

BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE runs through at the Allen Theatre.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to