If the word “Witch” weren’t on the cover of my Playbill in large type Wednesday night at the Wimberly Theatre, complete with a broomstick in place of the “i,” I might not have known whom Jen Silverman’s play is about.
OK, that’s an exaggeration. We do see a decent amount of title figure Elizabeth Sawyer (Lyndsay Allyn Cox), an outcast who is dubbed a witch by the citizens of her village.
But it’s no exaggeration to say that Elizabeth is offstage for inordinately long stretches of “Witch.” That means her sparring partner and possible romantic interest, a dapper devil named Scratch (Michael Underhill), is offstage as well. And their protracted absences leave all too much stage time for the play’s remaining, much less compelling, characters.
The result, in a production directed by Rebecca Bradshaw at Huntington Theatre Company, is a work lacking in focus, and thus in impact, that doesn’t deliver on the promise of its premise.
When Scratch shows up at Elizabeth’s door, attired in black leather and black boots seemingly borrowed from Marlon Brando in “The Wild One,” he’s got an intriguing offer: In exchange for her soul, he’ll make her dreams, no matter what they are, come true. He’s previously made that same offer to other townspeople, but the way he phrases it to Elizabeth is: “Everybody says you’re a witch. You’re not, of course. But would you like to be?”
Hmm. Would she? Having already done the time, so to speak, should Elizabeth do the crime? And maybe get some revenge on the townspeople in the process? She promises to think about Scratch’s offer. We, meanwhile, are left to think about that flicker of attraction we see between the duo. The bantering energy Cox and Underhill bring to their exchanges quickens our interest.
But that interest, and much of the play’s juice, ebbs whenever the play’s other four characters are onstage.
There’s Sir Arthur Banks (Barzin Akhavan), a wealthy landowner and widower who is given to a certain blustering sentimentality. There’s his son Cuddy (Nick Sulfaro), who feels both attraction and hatred for calculating Frank Thorney (Javier David Padilla), a peasant whom Sir Arthur treats as a surrogate son — and who presents a threat to Cuddy’s inheritance. And there’s Winnifred (Gina Fonseca), Sir Arthur’s servant, who is secretly married to Frank.
Even as the action grows more hectic — at times the quartet carries on like they’ve escaped from a production of “Spamalot” — a certain drift begins to overtake “Witch.”
Silverman has loosely based her play on “The Witch of Edmonton,” from the early 17th century, a period evoked in the Huntington’s “Witch” by Luciana Stecconi’s handsomely brooding set and Chelsea Kerl’s costumes. The play’s vernacular, however, is breezily contemporary, complete with phrases like “heads-up” and “cone of silence.” This is a now-common device when playwrights want to connect the past and the present, and while it’s not especially grating in “Witch,” it doesn’t add much to the play, either.
What “Witch” is aiming for is dark comedy, and Silverman has previously demonstrated with her excellent “The Roommate” that she’s more than equipped with the skills to make that balance work. But the comedy in “Witch’' is too glib to consistently land, and the darkness is not sufficiently enveloping to induce the sense of dread we should feel when what’s at stake is the human soul.
One exception is a wordless scene that is unsettling in all the right ways, a sequence of fiercely tormented Morris dancing (choreography is by Misha Shields) that occurs in the immediate aftermath of a major plot development and registers as a wrenchingly physical expression of conflicting emotions. It’s the single most powerful scene in “Witch,” and, as it happens, it involves one of the four supporting characters.
But Elizabeth is the most compelling figure; she’s the one we care most about. And, crucially, she’s the one whose challenge carries the sharpest dramatic edge and most meaningful reverberations: how to carve out a place in a world, then and now, that is inherently suspicious of independent women who pursue their ambitions without apology. We need to see more of her than we do in “Witch.” Applying an equal-time provision to a play is seldom a good idea.
Play by Jen Silverman. Directed by Rebecca Bradshaw. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company. At Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. In-person performances through Nov. 14. Tickets $25-$99. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org. Filmed performance available online Nov. 1-28.