For Gillian and Shep it’s passion in an instant, but this is the 1950s after all, a period especially tough on mixed marriages. He’s a successful publisher, and she’s an even more successful witch of the Salem variety. At least she’s not guilty of un-American activities: “They’re very American,” she assures him, “early American.” The course of their true love never runs smooth, but Darko Tresnjak’s stylish exploration of its twisty path, otherwise known as John van Druten’s “Bell, Book and Candle,” goes down cool and easy at the Old Globe.
Play’s conception of wizardry is amusingly prosaic compared with J.K. Rowling’s life and death battles for the soul. In van Druten’s world, magic is restricted to pranks, jealousy and matters of caprice, making it a perfect metaphor for the ways of love as practiced by us Muggles.
We learn that the conjuror’s character and courage determine the extent of his powers, which explains why feckless Nicky Holroyd (John Lavelle) and Aunt Queenie (Deborah Taylor) can make mischief with lights and telephones but can’t earn a decent living.
Gillian Holroyd, however, is the Top Chef of Manhattan witchery, a role to which Melinda Page Hamilton’s mercurial temperament is ideally suited. Whether through boredom, revenge or sheer disenchantment (and Hamilton leaves all three tantalizingly open), she sets her cap for the mortal fiance of a college mortal enemy.
Unhappily for the seductive Gillian, her powers lack the second sight to predict romance’s effects on herself or on Shep (Adrian LaTourelle), considerably bothered and bewildered when he learns he’s been bewitched.
Van Druten’s forte was the application of the literate, high comedy form to an outsider’s confrontation with a majority culture, whether it be Brits in a changing Germany (“I Am a Camera” which became “Cabaret”); a hack novelist among Manhattan literati (the recent Gotham “Old Acquaintance”); or an immigrant family’s coping with an unwelcoming New World (“I Remember Mama”). “Bell, Book and Candle” is richest of all as it interrelates two coexisting cultures — the magical and the mainstream — at once mutually suspicious and deeply attracted.
A third, implicit culture is represented here as well. As a closeted gay man van Druten knew something about being outside looking in — although there are more threatening closets than upper-class Gotham, which may account for the blitheness of play’s encoding of Nicky’s smart set, and the resemblance of a series of witch-spotting tips, provided by self-styled expert Sidney Redlitch (Gregor Paslawsky), to nothing so much as gaydar.
Helmer Tresnjak’s exquisite thrust-and-parry staging in the round brings out all of van Druten’s cultural clashes. So does Alexander Dodge’s set, a red velvet conversation pit (design by Lucifer) bordered by a black-and-white ramp that looks like a piano keyboard but proves to be a shadowy silhouette of the Manhattan skyline, on which are staged brief moments from the “other world” of which Gillian yearns to be a part. Or does she?
LaTourelle’s Gray Flannel Suit appearance and wry humor conjure up quintessential ’50s publisher Bennett Cerf, with the addition of a considerable dollop of strength and sex appeal. Though the TV show “Bewitched” didn’t study this play as an influence (that was the 1942 film “I Married a Witch”), Lavelle and Taylor have certainly studied Uncle Arthur and Aunt Clara to good effect, while Paslawsky’s energy and timing almost make the uncertainly written Redlitch role work.
Only disappointment is the substitution of a ceramic statuette for Gillian’s familiar, Pyewacket the cat, but perhaps it’s just as well. With Hamilton purring and arching her back and prowling around the velvet pit in Emily Pepper’s Givenchy-influenced black gowns, a flesh-and-blood Pyewacket might be too much feline grace for one stage to bear.