John Van Druten’s Bell, Book and Candle is a fanciful 1950 play that got made into a 1958 movie starring James Stewart and Kim Novak.
It’s the movie most folks remember, but the tale of a beautiful witch who puts a love spell on a soon-to-be-engaged publisher indeed began as a five-character play — six if you count the real cat who serves as the witch’s “familiar.” And you should.
In Stage Door Theatre’s new production of Van Druten’s play, Wee Thomas (a black feline whose stage debut was in GableStage’s The Lieutenant of Innishmore) nails every scene as the communicative Pyewacket. That thing about not working with kids and animals? Wee Thomas says, “Bah, humbug.”
The playwright imagines that early ‘50s New York is teeming with witches and warlocks, though not of the sinister Rosemary’s Baby variety.
Gillian Holroyd (Melissa MacLeod Herion) is a stylish, restless woman who lives in a book-lined Murray Hill apartment and is landlady to the building’s other tenants. Her brother Nicky (Thomas Karner) drops by frequently, stirring up mischief and seemingly lighting his cigarettes by summoning flames from his palm. The siblings’ eccentric aunt, Queenie Holroyd (Janet Weakley), has been causing trouble too by snooping around the apartment of publisher Shepherd Henderson (Nicholas Wilder), who’s none too happy about her unauthorized visits.
When Shep comes calling on Christmas Eve to complain, Gillian feels an attraction, one that’s greatly enhanced by her discovery that Shep’s about to get engaged to a woman Gillian loathed in college. An incantation changes everything, and Shep’s suddenly mad for his beautiful landlady.
Trouble comes calling — well, it’s summoned, to be accurate — in the form of Sidney Redlitch (Ken Clement), author of a book titled Magic in Mexico. He’s researching a book on New York’s witches, and Nicky wants to partner with him in exchange for a share of the credit and profits. Gillian, wanting to keep the particulars of her talents from her new beau, knows danger when she sees it.
Directed by Carbonell Award winner Michael Leeds, Stage Door’s production is a solid rendition of a period piece that has been entertaining audiences, on and off, for 65 years.
Set designer Michael McClain provides Gillian with an attractive flat decorated with books and artwork that (like Gillian) are more than they seem to be. Arden Landhuis’ lighting gets in on the magic, and costume designer Peter Lovello provides striking outfits that evoke the ‘50s (though Gillian going out on a December night wearing only a thin wrap around her shoulders is a stretch — maybe witches are impervious to cold?). Some of the scene-bridging music — Witchcraft, I Put a Spell on You — was written after the show’s 1951 setting, but it does put the audience in a playful frame of mind.
The acting, like the production, is solid. Though Wilder’s lanky Shep isn’t quite the handsome catch Van Druten’s script makes him out to be, he and Herion pretend their instant passion is real, and the stylish Herion is intriguing as a woman who must decide whether a different kind of magic can come from honest love and sacrifice.
Clement artfully plays a scene in which Sidney is downing drinks faster than Nicky can pour them, and he’s amusing as a man who thinks he knows more than he does. Karner and Weakley play their character types — he’s manipulative, she’s pleasantly dotty — quite well.
And Wee Thomas? She’s the cat’s meow.
If you go
What: ‘Bell, Book and Candle’ by John Van Druten.
Where: Stage Door Theatre, 8036 W. Sample Rd., Margate.
When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday-Sunday, through June 21.
Cost: $38-$42 ($16 students).
Information: 954-344-7765 or www.stagedoortheatre.com.