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Exocists of Comedy 

by Michael Bowen

Written in 1950, filmed in 1958, John Van Druten's Bell, Book and Candle exhibits the sensibilities of half a century ago. It has one of those kooky comic premises sure to produce crowd-pleasing wackiness: A handsome fella falls in love with -- get this -- a girl who's a witch. Then Witchy Woman casts a spell on the poor guy. (See how high she fly-i-ies.)

At Lake City Playhouse (through March 29), director Thomas C. Nash plays it straight, as if we're in a '50s time warp and Van Druten's play hadn't yet inspired Bewitched, the TV sitcom with the twitchy noses. But if Gillian Holroyd's pursuit of poor unsuspecting Shep Henderson doesn't merit any updating, why do it at all?

It's not as if there aren't angles to pursue. The independent, eccentric woman who dares to live without a man, feminists will note, is eventually subsumed into conventional matrimony. BB & amp;C opened on Broadway in the same year that Joseph McCarthy came to prominence; surely these witches must connect somehow to Communist witch hunts. Other commentators have pointed to the fact that Van Druten was gay, and that no one familiar with post-World War II Greenwich Village would mistake his witches and warlocks -- so different, so out of the mainstream -- for anything other than gay women and men. Even if we are going to take witchcraft at face value, why not at least refashion it as Wicca, New Age, the Spokane Pagan Society -- anything to give Gillian some interest and her goofy Aunt Queenie some substance?

Well, just a thought. But if you're going to duplicate the approach of the movie (Kim Novak as the witch, Jimmy Stewart as the lucky guy), then you had better offer some sparks between the romantic leads and some fast-paced shenanigans.

No such luck. Amy Chipman (as the sorceress) and Steve Harper (as her prey) aren't conducting any electrical currents. In fact, not only do these two people not have any chemistry, they aren't even working with the same periodic table of elements.

Chipman has a quiet, reserved beauty -- Kim Novak plus dark hair minus Elizabeth Montgomery's sitcom mischief. Harper, the best this cast has to offer, pulls off the Southern gentleman well enough, making it unlikely that he'd do something impulsive like dump his fianc & eacute;e and suddenly pick up with another woman. Then there's the epidemic of overacting among the three supporting players, with Julie Nash as Aunt Queenie -- the Agnes Moorhead role -- being the least egregious offender.

Yet if the premise isn't all that amusing, and the acting isn't much, one might reasonably hope at least for some swiftly flowing entertainment. Not here. I felt like standing up and shouting, "This is a comedy, people. We need some energy. Pick up your cues."

They didn't pick up their cues. They dropped them, clattering, all over the stage floor, with the worst offender being the poor woman who puttered through the final, interminable scene change. The sound system treated us to Sinatra launching into "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," and I felt sure that she'd quit fussing sometime soon -- yet in what turned out to be the longest scene-change I have ever sat through in my entire playgoing life -- even after the Chairman of the Board had stopped crooning and for a good 20 seconds of dead stage time thereafter, the pause between scenes to change the set that was even longer than the sentence you are reading right now finally ground to a halt, and the set didn't look much different than it did before.

Maybe the high point was Sinatra on the speakers: I'm wild again, beguiled again / A simpering, whimpering child again / Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I.

After seeing this show, I'm bothered and bewildered, all right. And soon to be off in a corner, whimpering.

Publication date: 03/20/03

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