Bleak Magic

Bell, Book and Candle is a fusty perennial of high school drama clubs and community playhouses, a '50s parlor comedy that's not particularly funny. Theater Works, for unfathomable reasons, has mounted a production of this programmer that's every bit as phony as the stuffed cat the lead actress drags around the stage with her. Why?

Probably it has something to do with Halloween. Whatever the reason, there's no excuse for dusting off this tired script, or for the drowsy performances that topple it. Playwright John Van Druten is better remembered as the author of I Am a Camera, the play on which the musical Cabaret was based, or for I Remember Mama, a homespun comedy later popularized as a weekly TV series in the '50s. In Bell, Book and Candle, Van Druten troubles audiences with the story of a witch, unfortunately named Gillian Holroyd, whose romance with a mortal is endangered by her meddlesome warlock brother. She attempts to thwart him with spells of her own, but -- because witches apparently lose their powers when they fall in love -- she fails.

The material is dated, full of references to the Kinsey Report and the Red Scare, which might have come off as nostalgic if the story were more clearly grounded in the '50s. The vaguely eccentric situations involving sorcery might have been elevated by some lively performances, but there are none here. In the lead, lovely Jennifer Boute is stiff and actorly. If her performance is uncaricatured, it's also rather bland. She's convincing as a witch who needs magic to seduce a handsome neighbor, but for all the worst reasons. The supporting cast turns in equally snoozy performances. Debra Watt has invested her dotty Aunt Queenie with an affected accent that adds nothing to the performance, and David Weiss tries -- and fails -- to endow zany warlock Nicky with a kind of effete charm; think Paul Lynde on Quaaludes. Troy Conrad is fine as the leading man, but with no one to play off of, he flounders.

The Theater Works production is at least consistently cut-rate. It takes place on a cheaply dressed set that's meant to suggest a New York brownstone, albeit one that's decorated with tables made from boxes draped with fabric samples and featuring a cardboard fireplace. I was amused by what burned there: a fire made from a sheet of Mylar, rustled by a nearby fan.

There was little else to laugh about. On the night I was there, the biggest yuks came when the actors accidentally upset a drinks tray, a gaffe that director Robyn Allen might do well to leave in. Allen has attempted some clever blocking, perching her actors atop sofas or huddled over a tiny potion, but there's not a lot to work with here. She's lined up lighting tricks (although Thomas Mendip's murky lighting design plunges several scenes into pitch-blackness) and special effects, but can't do much with leaden performances or a tired script.

Those special effects -- a door that opens by itself, a chair that toddles several inches across the floor -- aren't enough to save this sleepy evening, although the audience seemed impressed by a sequence involving a flashpot, an effect that nearly blinded me. Unfortunately, my sight returned, and so I witnessed the remaining scenes of Bell, Book and Candle, a bag of half-baked Halloween tricks that's no treat.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela

Latest Stories