It may be an old chestnut, but playwright John Van Druten’s romantic comedy “Bell, Book and Candle,” adapted for a 1958 film starring Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart, comes to surprisingly luminous life in San Francisco Playhouse’s current staging.
Bored and restless witch Gillian is attracted to a neighbor, Shep, in her Manhattan, N.Y., high-rise. When she discovers he’s engaged to her college nemesis, she can’t resist using her magical powers to seduce him.
Witches, it seems, cannot actually fall in love, or cry real tears. But eventually Gillian finds herself prey to both human passion and human pain when she indeed does fall for the Muggle.
Gillian’s journey toward an authentic emotional life is beautifully depicted by Lauren English, daughter of the play’s director, Bill English (also the company’s artistic director).
From the moment the lights go up, every fiber of her body seems to exude an exquisite indolence. She’s flirtatious and sexual, yet subtly aloof, even genuinely puzzled by Shep’s spell-induced ardor.
When, in the second act, she succumbs to the pitiable state of a rejected woman, the transition, enhanced by an obvious change in costume and hairdo, feels deeply internal.
As is usual for this family-run company, the ensemble is seamless, with Zehra Berkman as Gillian’s mischievously wacky Aunt Queenie; Scott Cox as Gillian’s flamboyant (and obviously gay) warlock brother; Louis Parnell as the alcoholic, self-declared magic expert and writer; and newcomer William Connell as a particularly charming Shep, with a toothy grin, bubbling with boyish glee as he finds himself head, to his own bemusement, over heels.
Director English also designed the spare, elegant, mid-century modern set, complete with velvety-red, curved sectional sofa and ottoman, the Chrysler Building looming outside the large picture window and a glowing moon diagonally traversing the dark sky.
Pyewacket, Gillian’s eerie familiar, is an Egyptian-esque cat statue set center stage, with eyes that glow on and off.
Brendan Aanes’ sound (with foreboding special effects and recordings such as “Santa Baby,” “It’s Witchcraft” and “I Put a Spell on You”), Kurt Landisman’s dramatic lighting and Abra Berman’s period-perfect costumes — especially for glamorous Gillian and bohemian Queenie — make for an integrated, beautifully designed production.
Most important of all, director and cast mine Van Druten’s script for its inherent poignancy with grace and with skill, and without ever losing the comedy.