‘Bell, Book & Candle’: what 1950s women did for love

The 1950 Broadway hit “Bell, Book & Candle” has been given a beautiful new production at Long Wharf Theatre — with a terrific performance by Kate MacCluggage in the lead — that almost rolls right over a bumpy and unsatisfying ending that is built into John Van Druten’s 62-year-old script.

When we see a vintage movie about male-female relationships we can usually ignore — or hoot at — the archaic elements, because we know the film is a (frozen) product of another time and place.

The way that women almost always had to give into their men in 1950s romantic comedies becomes excuseable because the movie plots were part of the post-World War II push to shake the ladies out of their wartime feeling of liberation as factory workers and single gals, and push them back into the home, happy to be wives and mothers.

If you happen to see even a very good movie from that period — such as the 1950 “All About Eve” — with an audience, you will hear women groaning when the female characters bow to their men and deliver speeches about the ultimate emptiness of being a single, working woman (i.e. what Bette Davis says to Celeste Holm when they are stuck in that broken-down car near the end of “Eve”).

Nostalgia and old-fashioned star power usually mute the sexism of old movies, but it’s very difficult to revive a vintage play that puts modern actors through outdated situations — nine times out of ten, you can sense the tension of the performers up on the stage who are have been put in the position of selling stale notions. We can’t simply laugh off the work of contemporary stage directors and actors who are stuck with dated material.

“Bell, Book & Candle” is a three-act comedy about a New York City witch — Gillian Holroyd (played by MacCluggage) — who falls in love at first sight with the mortal male (Robert Eli) who lives upstairs in a townhouse that has been converted into apartments.

The original production starred Lilli Palmer and Rex Harrison and one can only imagine the razzle dazzle they brought to the frothy scenes in which Gillian uses spells to attract her neighbor away from his fiance — sadly, she then learns the truth of the folklore that says a female witch will lose her powers if she falls in love.

Gillian is such a fantastic creature — played with spectacular charm and charisma by MacCluggage — that the loss of her powers in Act III has the effect of a giant wet blanket being thrown over the audience.

“Bell, Book & Candle” is well worth seeing for its star and the considerable fun of the first two acts, but be prepared for a letdown at the end. What Gillian is gaining in the rather dull Shepherd Henderson doesn’t seem to be worth the magic she is losing.

(“Bell, Book & Candle” is a co-production of Long Wharf Theatre and Hartford Stage that will be running through April 1 in New Haven and then will move on to Hartford for another month of performances.)

Joe Meyers