In Bell, Book and Candle, Gillian Holroyd, a modern day witch, bewitches an attractive regular guy to fall in love with her and in the course of it is bewitched herself. It’s a delightful comedy, witty, romantic, with a shiver of the occult, and contemporary — if by contemporary we can include around 1950.
It all takes place in Gillian’s mid-20th century New York City apartment — complete with sunken living room, portable cocktail bar, and clunky land lines. She’s attracted to the handsome publisher in the apartment upstairs, Shepherd Henderson, and while she’d prefer to attract him to her in the regular way, there’s no time — he’s about to announce his engagement that very night and, worse, to a girl she hated in college — so she has to use her witchcraft in a hurry, helped by her cat Pyewacket — the name’s enough to turn the cat into a character. (Most witches, like Gillian’s brother Nick and her Aunt, Miss Holroyd, can’t do much more than turn the lights on and off with a snap of the fingers or pass through a door but Gillian is really tops!)
Sidney Reditch, an eccentric author and expert on witches, happens by (so he thinks, but he’s really been compelled by a spell) and holds forth on how witches are hidden everywhere looking like regular people, and holding conspiratorial meetings in high places. “They’re all around us,” he claims, “anyone might be a witch.” And seizing on Shep, the one non-witch in the bunch, he says, “But I can tell one when I see one.” Recognizing — particularly at the word “Un-American” the playwright’s spoof on Senator Joe McCarthy and his anti-Communist “witch hunt”, the audience had a good laugh. What a laugh that must have been during the height of McCarthyism and the run of the play!
“Witches don’t cry.” The playwright has a psychological point to make. Witches, as he sets them up, are self-centered, always looking to get what they want via short cuts, and are incapable of love, and as the play unfolds the effects of this personality type on itself and the havoc it can reek on others is dramatized. Will Gillian make the leap from narcissism to love? It’s not fair to say, but I can tell you that the play ends with one of the best last lines ever!
Bay Street Theatre has given this beautifully crafted play a fine production — stylish, great set, well paced, and acted with vigor and charm. Marvelous actors have played the romantic roles: Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer in the original Broadway production, which John van Druten directed, Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novack in the movie, the origin of the TV series “Bewitched”; here, Arija Bareikis as Gillian and Sam Robards as Shep make an appealing pair, and like all the cast are great fun to watch.
Bell, Book And Candle plays at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, Long Island, NY through June 28th.
Now here’s a story that’s followed this play: During the original Broadway production, the married actor couple Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer were continually trying to break one another up on-stage “for fun.” Rex Harrison arranged with the Stage Manager to make the phone ring at a wrong time. Lilli Palmer walked over the the phone, put it to her ear, and handed it over to Rex Harrison, saying sweetly, “It’s for you, Darling.”
Fans of the film point to similarities between it and the earlier I Married A Witch (1942) and especially the 1960s television series Bewitched (produced by Columbia’s television division). Bewitched creator Sol Saks revealed in his book The Craft of Comedy Writing that he drew on these and other sources such as folktales.
Thanks for making this excellent point.
After more than half a century, this play still has the ability to engage, amuse and engender empathy. Most interesting, to me, was the awareness that, in part, this was a comic parody of the witch hunting of the McCarthy era. Most theater goers today have little or no awareness of the real fear that many had in those times. Even the suggestive comic ridicule was then less than safe. It is good for us now to be reminded of those times so as be ever vigilante for a resurgence of such censorship and abridgement of our fundamental freedoms.
What wonderful summer theater! Engaging, fun, well-acted, with a beautifully designed set. The references to the McCarthy witch hunts, in the context of the play’s setting in the early 50’s, is compelling.