Bewitched? No, bothered and bewildered at SF Playhouse

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Lauren English as Gillian Holroyd casts a spell on publisher Shep Henderson, played by William Connell, in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Bell, Book and Candle, a 1950 romantic comedy by John Van Druten. Below: English (center) confers with Zehra Berkman (left) as Queenie and Scott Cox as Nicky. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Oh, how I would love to tell you how a graceful and convincing performance by Lauren English and a sturdy production by Bill English rescues John Van Druten’s 1950 comedy Bell, Book and Candle from the heap of mediocre mid-century plays that have become irretrievably dated. And while Team English is indeed in good form here, the play itself is an attempt at enchantment that fails to enchant.

It very well could be that this play has been forever ruined for me by the TV show “Bewitched,” which for eight seasons never failed to delight me as a witch made a family with a mortal man in a world with a closed collective mind where issues of magic were concerned. The TV show, which was inspired by Van Druten’s play as well as the 1942 movie I Married a Witch, featured a blithe central performance by the ever-enchanting Elizabeth Montgomery, who somehow seemed above all the slapstick mayhem surrounding her. Members of the magic world were played for big laughs, none more so that Agnes Moorehead’s delicious Endora, the mother-in-law from character actress hell (or heaven, depending on your point of view).

Van Druten’s play has none of the TV show’s charm and ends up a two-hour sitcom without many laughs. His primary witch, Gillian Holroyd, is bored and is ready for something more in her life, something witchcraft can’t offer. When she meets one of her Manhattan apartment building neighbors, a handsome publisher named Shepherd Henderson, she isn’t allowed to simply fall for him. Rather, Van Druten makes her spark to jealousy because Shep is engaged to one of her old college nemeses. And he deosn’t let her simply beguile the mortal with her feminine charms without casting a spell on the poor guy.

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So this amounts to one of the quickest and least interesting courtships imaginable. All this renders Gillian not terribly likable, so when she decides to come clean about her sorcery, the dramatic stakes aren’t very high, and the notion of Gillian and Shep ending up together isn’t terribly compelling.

Van Druten could at least surround his witch with interesting characters the way Montgomery’s Samantha on “Bewtiched” was up to her pretty eyeballs in spell-casting goofballs. But no, the relative down the hall, Queenie, is sort of a bumbler and meddler. And brother Nicky, a warlock, doesn’t have much of a profile beyond his sex life, which is mentioned several times. An author who has written a popular book about magic is thrown into the mix, but he doesn’t end up with much to do.

Director Bill English tries to mine this shallow material for something meaty — like early attempts at feminism, letting women wield the power, allowing shadow cultures to emerge from secrecy and shame — but there’s not enough there to sustain the play. At least English, in his role as set designer, delivers a sleek and stunning New York apartment with a gorgeous view of the Chrylser Building.

Lauren English’s performance as Gillian is admirable because the actress is so deft at combining the smooth polish of romantic comedy with some real emotion and complication. But again, Van Druten’s writing only allows a textured approach to go so far, so the talented and lovely English is caught up short.

Supporting actors Zehra Berkman as Queenie, Scott Cox as Nicky and Louis Parnell as the author, do their best to give this soggy material some effervescence. Leading man William Connell as Shep comes awfully close to being a perfect 1950s leading man, but the play never really lets Shep emerge as a worthy subject of Gillian’s affection. If she’s willing to give up being a witch for this guy, we never really get to see why. And we certainly can’t discern any plausible future for these two.

The whole notion of magic among mortals is so delicious, so fun — everything Van Druten’s play is not. This San Francisco Playhouse production tries to keep it light without letting it be silly, but the play itself combined with a typically 1950s ending that makes you crave Endora’s interference, keeps things pretty bland.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed Lauren English for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

John Van Druten’s Bell, Book and Candle continues through Jan. 19 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$70. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Dating sharp, funny, creepy Becky Shaw at SF Playhouse


The cast of Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw includes (from left) Liz Sklar, Brian Robert Burns, Lorri Holt, Lauren English and Lee Dolson. Below: Burns and English have an uncomfortable second non-date. Photos by Jessica Palopoli


The humor is in direct proportion to the discomfort in Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw, now in its West Coast premiere at SF Playhouse.

If David Mamet were good at anything other than provocation and crisp dialogue, he might write something as entertaining and as distressing as Becky Shaw, a smart, incisive and very funny play that, despite its lack of focus, makes for a beguiling evening of theater.

By lack of focus I mean that Gionfriddo doesn’t delineate protagonist or antagonist. Even though the title of the play belongs to one character, the playwright’s aim seems much broader – like how power works between family members, between men and women and between the seemingly weak and the seemingly strong. She’s interested in highly functional dysfunctional people, which is to say, just about everybody.

Her targets here are members of an extended family: the matriarch, Susan (Lorri Holt), who is dealing with MS; Suzanna (Liz Sklar), the fragile adult daughter whose life is a mess; and Max (Brian Robert Burns) the sort-of adopted son who makes millions by managing the fortunes of others.

We meet this trio several months after the deal of Susan’s husband and Suzanna’s father. Family secrets and economic misfortune are the order of the day, but so are mother-daughter feuds and romantic liaisons probably best left outside the family unit.

Gionfriddo is a zesty writer with a taste for zingers, especially for the characters of Max and Susan, both brilliantly played with full-throttle, zinger-flinging relish by Burns and Holt respectively. Here’s Max on how to deal with death and still wield power: “Grieve. Be sad. But do it with a big dick.” On the same subject, Susan says the death of her husband, an elderly man who lived a full life and died peacefully “is not a loss. It’s a transition.”


With Sklar’s Suzanna, you want to make her hold still and take some deep breaths in an attempt to get a hold of herself, but she teeters through the play’s two-plus hours on the verge (and just on the other side) of nervous collapse and blinding rage.

As months go by, new people enter the fray who challenge the wicked family balance. Andrew (Lee Dolson) brings, as Max describes it in his customarily sarcastic way, an “indie rock” vibe to the clan, and his apparent concern for all creatures great and small is just another mask for his own particular damage.

And then there’s Becky Shaw (Lauren English), a possibly pathetic or possibly crafty (or more likely both) young woman whose life has taken some unfortunate turns and now finds herself at the mercy of both Max and Andrew. One thing we could have told Becky that no one in the play bothered to is this: never go on a blind date with Max, the man who sees marriage and prostitution as one and the same thing and the man who says, “Love is a happy by-product of use.”

English has a tricky role because we’re never quite sure about Becky and her reality. But this much is sure: English is extraordinary in the role. Compassionate and crazy-making, she turns the play on its ear, just as she should. There’s a moment when all Becky does is walk on stage, and the audience has a collective reaction just to her presence. That’s a testament to the character Gionfriddo has written and the skill with which English brings her to life.

As directed by Amy Glazer, Becky Shaw is a comedy of discomfort, a drama of ridiculous people. There’s a real-life edge to these people, both in Gionfriddo’s script and Glazer’s finely tuned cast. It’s not exactly docu-drama, but then again it wouldn’t be nearly as funny or as intriguing if it were. There’s real craft here in dissecting people we might be happy to dismiss but can’t because they’re too familiar.

The craft extends to Bill English’s set, which, with a few spins of the turntable, goes from a Manhattan hotel room to a posh Florida home to a grimy studio apartment in Providence, R.I. And congratulations to costume designer Miyuki Bierlein for finding a dress that, when described as a birthday cake, gets a laugh but also makes you feel sorry for the woman wearing it.

At one point, Max, who turns out to be the play’s most fascinating character, wonders why anyone would choose “an ugly reality over a beautiful fiction,” and it’s a good question. Becky Shaw has both in it, and that makes for a fascinating and highly entertaining play.


Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw continues through March 10 at the SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$70. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Magic sends tingles through Chafee’s Body

Lilli played by Lauren English, Renee played by Rebecca Dines

Body checks: Lauren English (left) is Lili and Rebecca Dines is Renee in the Magic Theatre’s revival of its 1993 hit Why We Have a Body by Claire Chafee. Below: English’s Lili converses with Maggie Mason’s Mary. Photos by Jennifer Rei


“Once you start to ask,” Eleanor says, “there are more questions than answers.” Not a surprising statement in a play whose title, Why We Have a Body promises an answer to an implied question. And as Eleanor warns us, once those questions start forming, the answers, they keep multiplying.

Claire Chafee’s wonderfully enigmatic play is back at the Magic Theatre to open its 45th anniversary season with a look backward before heading into a season of newer plays. Body is being called a “legacy revival” because it was a huge hit for the Magic in 1993, running for six months and winning a passel of awards. What a welcome return it is.

In the nearly two decades since the play’s premiere, it has lost nothing in its sense of humor, sense of mystery and sense of, well, sensuality.

Chafee’s is an intellectual world – people living in their heads, in their pasts (the phrase “when I was a child” crops up a lot), in a perpetual state of perplexity – but that world is sliced through by a sharp comedy derived from family fractures and psychological scars. One of Chafee’s best lines comes when sisters Lili (Lauren English) and Mary (Maggie Mason) are on the phone talking about dreams. Mary has had another one of her feminist nightmares. “Like the once where you’re in a big circle and you have to come to a unanimous decision?” Lili queries.

Mary played by Maggie Mason and Lilli played by Lauren English

Though the play moves mostly in one direction, there’s a fragmented sense to this story of a mother (Lorri Holt) driven to remote stretches of the planet, while her daughters are left to try and figure out there thorny adulthoods for themselves. Lili is a private detective who helps women whose husbands are cheating on them. Mary is a criminal. She holds up 7-11s, obsesses about Joan of Arc and has the power to send faxes telepathically.

Mary is a singular person in every sense. She’s on her own in the world, perhaps mentally ill but very self-sufficient. Lili, though independent, buckles under the pressure of wanting and needing someone to love. The women she has loved have, as her sister, points out, are “busy not noticing her.” But she has recently met a rather extraordinary paleontologist on a plane. Renee (Rebecca Dines) is married but separated from her husband.

The scene on the airplane between Lili and Renee – so perfectly performed by English and Dines – is incredibly sexy, as is the following scene when a nervous Renee comes to Lili’s home and ends up presenting a paleontological slide show of her childhood.

Director Katie Pearl’s 90-minute production flows beautifully with the help of Marsha Ginsberg’s gorgeous white set, which represents airplanes, wild rivers in South America, the open desert (a pile of dirt is brought in to help manage that one), a Mexican beach and an airport bar among other locations.

I found myself longing for the character of Eleanor to be more involved in the play. She seems to be a short story circling a novel, an influence on everyone involved but not really present. Sharply etched by Holt, Eleanor is reacting to the limitations of her own upbringing. She’s out in the world with no plans to return home. “I was never told that you have to look for your life,” she says. “That some of aren’t born into our lives, we have to go and look for them. As if they’re taking place without us.”

The fine quartet of actors skillfully mine the humor and the darker, dramatic places to create characters that you care about – enough anyway to feel pangs when they do, which is fairly frequently.

It all seems to boil down to something Mary says to her older sister, who is not having enough fun. “You gotta just enjoy the human dilemma, Lili. That’s why it’s here.” That could be an answer to why we have a body. It could just as easily tell us why we go to the theater, but for some of us, they’re one and the same thing.


Claire Chafee’s Why We Have a Body continues through Oct. 2 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$75. Call 415-441-8822 or visit