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This article by Joan Crespi was prepared for the October 30, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Drama Review: `Hocus Pocus’

Hocus Pocus,’ the comedy by Jack Popplewell, currently

running at Hopewell’s Off-Broadstreet Dessert Theater through November

23, is a play for our money-propelled, scandal-ridden times. Well,

sort of. Its dual focus is on business ethics — or lack thereof

— with stocks and stockholders on the one hand and the needs of

the church, which operates in the real world, on the other.

First produced in England in 1961, the plot involves the age-old switcheroo

of twin brothers. Simon, the church vicar, is a generous, decent man

with no head for business. Peter, his identical twin brother, is a

businessman of dubious ethics. (Note the play on names: Simon Peter

was originally named Simon, but Jesus changed his name to Peter because

he was like a rock — "On this rock I will build my church.")

Set on a stage that is divided equally, one half represents the vicar

Simon’s study in Bogfield, Sussex, with its forest green walls above

wainscotting. The other half is Peter’s hotel room in London with

bright yellow wallpaper, a love seat, and a painting of a reclining

nude. Robert Thick, who directs this fast-paced play, also designed

and dressed the ingenious sets, with pictures ready to be switched

for an unspoken joke.

The plot device of twin brothers and mistaken identity is an old one.

Shakespeare has two sets of twins in "The Comedy of Errors,"

giving rise to multiple mistaken identities and fun. In "Hocus

Pocus" Simon and Peter, cleric and businessman, never interact,

confront, or recognize each other, even in the play’s denouement.

They can’t. Both parts are very credibly played by the same actor,

Danny Siegel.

Here Simon, the vicar, and Peter, the businessman, deliberately trade

places — Simon to hide out from creditors who want payment for

church repairs, and Peter to hide from angry, bilked stockholders.

The ruse is known to their close associates, including their girlfriends

who, independently, come up with the switching scheme, setting the

plot in motion.

Peter’s shady associate Harry Windover (played by M.A. Young) is

also in on the scheme. Mrs. Gravestock (Patricia A. Hibbert), once

the twins’ nanny and now the vicar’s housekeeper, wonders at the vicar’s

drastically changed character.

The play works in parallels: what one brother needs, the other has:

business acumen (read: scheming) and scriptural knowledge. Some of

the dialogue in the play’s contrasting venues is so similar as to

provoke quiet amusement in the audience.

Playwright Popplewell was born in 1911, which may explain why the

girls in his plot find their power only when guided by a new man —

the other twin — who has come into their lives, bringing out their

own suppressed desires. Again, each becomes what the other was.

At the outset the apparently proper Janet Jones (Marilyn Mangone Stoddard),

who speaks with a rapid run-on English accent, is the vicar’s girlfriend.

Bella Newel (Pamela Linkin) is Peter’s girl, the redheaded floosie

stripper played by a delightfully vibrant Linkin. That the women are

going to change is telegraphed so early in the action there’s no suspense

about it. What suspense the comedy offers comes from how the brothers,

moved into each other’s situations, eventually manage to solve each

other’s problems.

After its opening exposition, the play finally lifts off in the second

act. Peter (as Simon) convinces the supposedly upstanding Alderman

Knebworth (Drew M. Hurly) that he can make a killing by agreeing to

buy and sell church land. Thus Peter (as Simon) provides the money

needed to pay off the debt for church repairs.

In London, Simon (as Peter) actually enjoys the rough and tumble stockholders

meeting. Normally self-conscious and shy, he feels exalted, combining

his "good qualities with Peter’s ruthless determination."

Later, quoting scriptures on demand, he convinces the tough, abrupt

Luther Gates (Robert Thick) to make a 4 million pound loan to cover

the stockholders’ losses.

Here, with some laugh-out-loud lines, is a gentle comedy of character,

of costume, and even of wall pictures. It’s a comedy of ideas, of

dualities — spirituality vs. venality, sexuality vs. stolid propriety

and intellectuality. Many of us, it suggests, house our opposites

within.

— Joan Crespi

Hocus Pocus, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood

Avenue, Hopewell, 609-466-2766. Weekends to November 23. $22.50 &

$24.


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