Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

A Bewitching Production of Bell, Book and Candle

Zehra Berkman, Lauren English and
Scott Cox

San Francisco Playhouse is presenting a stylish and sassy production of John Van Druten's Bell, Book and Candle with a great cast of spot-on actors directed with style by Bill English. It has been a long while since I first saw the play at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre starring Rex Harrison and Lili Palmer, during the winter of 1950. Later, I saw Zachary Scott and Joan Bennett in a production in Chicago.

Bell, Book and Candle is set in the chic Manhattan apartment of Gillian Holroyd (Lauren English), who happens to be a beautiful young witch. The comedy dates from a gentler time when the witches depicted were hesitant to use their powers lest they arose society's misgivings. These witches merely open what a manual to find a spell. So, instead of fighting demons, they employ their powers for such apparently commonplace tasks as opening doors, turning off lights, and summoning a visitor.

Gillian is bored and explains to her cat named Pyewacket (onyx model of a black cat with flashing eyes) that she would like a man in her life. So she sets her sights on and puts a spell on book publisher Shep Henderson (William Connell), a very human upstairs neighbor. Shep is engaged to Gillian's schoolyard enemy (not seen in the play) and she is not above making someone she barely knows more miserable. So she kills two birds with one stone by casting a spell on the unknowing stuffed-shirt guy.

Gillian's magical incantation is so effective that Shep is over the moon in love with her. He immediately cancels an engagement with his girlfriend and falls in love with the witch in the space of three hours. Shep has no idea that Gillian or her brother Nicky (Scott Cox) are witches. Shep is curious, since he wants to know about her past, to meet all of the other friends in her life and just wants to know where this relationship is heading. Frankly, he wants to marry her. However, he does not know that witches can't love. The brother and author of witches Sidney Redlitch (Louis Parnell) along with her aunt Miss Holroyd (Zehra Berkman) threaten this relationship, and finally the truth comes out.

Lauren English as Gillian the beautiful young witch at the center of Bell, Book and Candle doesn't need to wiggle her nose or snap her fingers to mesmerize the audience at the San Francisco Playhouse. English both creates a unique Gillian, capable of sharing the knowledge and material she has gained from her brother and aunt, establishes the helplessness of a young woman who finds herself open to a possibility of a relationship.

New York actor William Connell provides Shep with an unfaltering decorousness that earns the audience's compassion. He and Lauren English have great chemistry together. Scott Cox (returning to the stage after a three year hiatus) gives a devilish performance as the playful brother Nicky. He plays the role with deliberate swishiness, although every word of the dialogue insists he is heterosexual. Zehra Berkman is delightful as the audacious aunt Miss Holroyd. Berkman's wacky meddler and Cox's sweetly caustic warlock provide most of the gentle comedy. Louis Parnell is entertaining as the foolish Sidney Redlitch, an author eager to sniff out secret magical societies.

Director Bill English's tendering of fine-tuned feelings toward this play is wonderful. He also designed a superb Manhattan set with panels of moody gray skyscrapers seen through a large window in the background. Kurt Landisman's lighting is deployed effectively to depict the casting of a spell. Costumes by Abra Berman are chic and the sound by Brendan Aanes is perfect.

Bell, Book and Candle runs through January 19th at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-677-9596 or visit Coming up next will be Stephen Adly Guirgis's The Motherf@%ker with the Hat opening on February 2nd.

Photo: Jessica Palopoli

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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