New York City was at one of its creative peaks in 1959. It was the year that Miles Davis released Kind of Blue, that Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum building opened, and that comedian Lenny Bruce made his network television debut on the Steve Allen Show. Bell, Book & Candle, the revival now playing at Ensemble Theater Company, is set in that place and that year, and, while it may not offer anything quite as shocking as Lenny Bruce or as radical as Wright’s Guggenheim, it does sail along with something like the panache and bittersweet wisdom of great jazz.
As Gillian Holroyd, the by turns seductive and forceful figure around whom the show revolves, Mattie Hawkinson dazzles. She’s a beautiful, vivid, and darkly passionate witch with just enough steel in her character to sidestep any traces of Glinda-like sappiness. As her Aunt Holroyd, Susan Ruttan delivers some of the show’s best lines and delights the audience with her inadvertent disclosures and disruptions. Gillian’s brother, Nicky, ably performed by Zachary Ford, teeters wickedly between helping and harming his sister’s chances with her new beau. And as Sidney, the tipsy writer who thinks he knows about the occult, Leonard Kelly-Young brings just the right measure of anarchy.
But the real heart of Bell, Book & Candle is the love story, and for that you need an intriguing ingenue and a truly compelling leading man. As Shep, the dashing publisher who turns Gillian’s witchy world upside down, Thomas Vincent Kelly is outstanding, wringing every bit of pathos, humor, and excitement from his character’s mad fling with the forces of darkness. On a surface level, this is a comedy of flyting, as in Shakespeare, with the couple exchanging critical witticisms as a form of flirtation. But underneath that surface, powerful emotions roil, and both Kelly and Hawkinson capture it fully.