Zombies and vampires have been ubiquitous this millennium, but lately witches are making a welcome return via at least three new shows on television and lots of other conjurers joining in on Wicked’s success on the New York theater scene. A welcome return, I say, because witches have so much more dimension in comparison to the single issue voters that are vampires (blood) and zombies (brains).
Ground UP Productions’ contribution to the trend is Bell, Book and Candle, a completely enjoyable 1950s period piece, aka early Mad Men. It takes a woman with supernatural powers to upend expectation and witchcraft is analogous to artistic temperament. There are also great Betty Draper dresses and a best actor cat nominee too.
At the downtown Gene Frankel Theater, Kate Middleton plays Gillian Holroyd, witch and bewitching. The character herself is a prominent enchantress in pop cultural history; she is an influence for the classic 1960s sitcom Bewitched. And sitcom is the overarching composition of the play equalling snappy chatter and a thin plot line of a love spell going wrong, but the cast and direction (Phillip Ruvelas) make for an entertaining night on Bond Street, and the play certainly stands on its own without knowing anything about Samantha Stevens.
Gillian Holroyd is an independent heroine of a certain age who is doing just fine before the 1950s plot twists (reinforcing societal norms) must have their way and cause her to settle down with a nice man. Kate Middleton temporarily resists any infringement on her powers with her hands on her hips, her pale blue eyes glaring out from behind heavy eyeliner, convincing us that the two worlds of New York real estate and a witch’s coven aren’t that far apart.
The cast was all around on mark with playwright John Van Druten’s quips. One performance in particular, Bairbre Dowling as eccentric Aunt Queenie is a delight. The brocades and feathered pillbox hats are charming and show great attention to detail, but I suspect that even without the costume, eccentric Aunt Queenie would be irresistable. Ms. Dowling adds another great character to her already extensive NYC acting resume.
Brett Bolton, making his NYC debut as potential love interest Shep Henderson, has a rather unenviable role as the pawn in a witch’s game, and he can’t make much of the pat ending: 1) double-take, 2) change mind 3) tie up the loose ends 4) live happily ever after, but he makes an earnest best of it.
The amiable Nicky, Gillian’s ne’er do well brother (because every wit needs an underachieving sibling) is played by the charismatic Guy Olivieri. And as the comic foil, there is Sidney Redlitch the paranormal researcher who can unknowingly reveal all, Rob Maitner fills every corner of that broad character.
Finally, as far as the final cast member to be discussed, well, I have to wonder if the production of Bell, Book and Candle isn’t simply a vehicle for Dr. Watson the Cat (in much the same way that the nearby The Seagull is a vehicle for Trudie Styler, Mrs. Sting). Pyewacket is the feline role that acting cats all aspire to, and Dr. Watson is the best I have ever seen. And I say this having seen Wee Thomas in The Lieutenant of Inishmore. This talented pet even has his own twitter account @pyepyepyewacket
The Ground UP takes special pride in its attention to detail, and Travis McHale (set design) and Amanda Jenks (costume) among others uphold the mission. The set radiates with aqua and silver, and the gowns are as lovely as you would expect from someone to whom price tag is no cause for hesitation because there is always magic.
Speaking of dress, from a 21st century viewpoint, it is too bad that Gillian has to inevitably downplay her talents in order to get the happy ending that she deserves with her fashion-sense falling victim as metaphor, but do we really have to uphold the equation that magical is glamourous and to be human is to be dowdy? Poor Gillian, I do fear that the next stop is as librarian although the play makes great pains to tell us that without her magic powers, she will sink to the lowest of the low. A reviewer.
Bell, Book and Candle runs through October 26.