World Premiere of “Belleville” at Yale

by Tom Holehan

Not one but two of our most prestigious regional theatre companies have decided to combine their resources and talent for a revival of John van Druten’s “Bell, Book and Candle.” Say what? Hartford Stage and New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre have selected Mr. van Druten’s whimsical 1950s era romantic comedy as a co-production? Was “Natalie Needs a Nightie” unavailable?

 

I don’t mean to be facetious, but van Druten’s likable but featherweight comedy has been a community theatre and summer stock staple for years and seems decidedly out-of-place on New Haven and Hartford’s esteemed stages. Set in Manhattan during the early 1950s, the play introduces modern witch Gillian Holroyd (a sublime Kate MacCluggage) who has set her sights on soon-to-be-married publisher Shepherd Henderson (Robert Eli). Gillian, urged on by her dotty aunt (Ruth Williamson) and warlock brother (Michael Keyloun), casts a spell on Shepherd who is soon at her feet in rapt admiration. Gillian, however, may care a little too much for Shepherd and is soon in danger of losing her powers and becoming human. What’s a girl to do?

 

Okay, it ain’t “Hamlet”, but the play may still hold fond memories for theatergoers who recall its original starry Broadway production (with Rex Harrison and then wife Lilli Palmer) or the 1958 film version starring Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart. At Long Wharf, under the often heavy-handed direction of Darko Tresnjak, the chemistry between MacCluggage and Eli never really percolates. For a comedy that relies almost entirely on the attraction between its two lead characters, this is a serious problem. Over a very slow three acts and a nearly three hour running time where little of anything of importance really happens, “Bell, Book and Candle” has to rely on its spiffy design (superb work by all especially Alexander Dodge’s blood-red set and Fabio Toblini’s spot-on costumes) and its leading lady, who almost makes up for everything that is lacking in the production.

 

MacCluggage, who wore her seamed nylons to perfection in the theatre’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” radio play last December, is even better here playing the silken Gillian. Her vivid stage presence purrs sexiness and heat as she combines a cat-like sensuality with a vulnerable little-girl-lost persona achieving an overall winning performance. A shame that the rest of the cast never really equals her heights.

 

In some odd directing choices, Tresnjak has chosen to portray Gillian’s brother as homosexual which, in the hands of the very broad Mr. Keyloun, is equal parts offensive and unfunny. And if someone can explain to me the basic use of the (invisible) apartment door on the set, I would appreciate it. The main entrance is established early on when visitors ring the doorbell. But while some mime “opening” the door, others walk right through it. Still others forget the door bell altogether and just barge in. It may be a small point but is indicative of a problematic production lacking a firm hand at the helm.

 

“Bell, Book and Candle” continues at Long Wharf through April 1 and then transfer to Hartford Stage to run April 5-29. For further information and ticket reservations call Long Wharf at 203.787.4282/www.longwharf.org or Hartford Stage at: 860.527.5151/www.hartfordstage.org.

 

Tom Holehan is Co-chairman of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

 

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