HARTFORD, Conn. -- For director Darko Tresnjak's enigmatic production of John van Druten's 1950 comedy, "Bell, Book and Candle" at Hartford Stage, Alexander Dodge has provided a set that is awash in a lush red. But for all its textural richness, the color scheme masks a poverty of authenticity.
The setting is the ground floor New York apartment of an attractive woman named Gillian Holroyd (Kate Mac Cluggage), cool, poised, measured, elegant in obvious, if also understated, ways. There is a calculated detachment in her manner and her speech. She is, it turns out, a witch and an extremely powerful and skillful one at that.
Gillian has, for some time, secretly lusted after the man upstairs, Shepherd Hender son (Robert Eli), a publisher who, it turns out, is about to marry a college classmate of Gillian who, out of spite, stole Gillian's college boy friend. Now, Gillian is determined to return the favor by using her witch's charms to make Henderson fall in love with her.
Gillian, however, gets far more than she bargained for when the impossible happens -- she falls in love. It opens her to a set of emotions she's never before felt and it's not all good, especially when Shepherd finds out the truth.
Tresnjak wisely has kept "Bell, Book and Candle" in its mannered Champagne comedy era. But, riddled as it is with a heavyhanded use of sound effects and music coupled with superficial performances, his production plays more like Cold Duck than Champagne.
As Henderson, Eli delivers his lines with breathless rapid ity, aping a mid-1930s/early-'40s movie comedy technique but without any sense of character at the foundation.
As her Gillian wrestles with feelings that are alien to her as a witch, MacCluggage replaces her earlier measured drone with readings that are more varied, more human, but the effect is no less inauthentic and imposed.
In the roles, respectively, of Gillian's nosy, meddlesome aunt, Queenie; her mischievous brother, Nicky; and a self-important writer working on a book about modern witches in New York, Ruth Williamson, Michael Keyloun and George Paslawsky work much harder than they should have to to bring some charm to this otherwise charmless affair. It's a losing effort.
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