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‘Becky Nurse of Salem’ Off Broadway Review: ‘The Crucible’ Collides With ‘Hocus Pocus’

Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe take the blame in Sarah Ruhl’s new play

For a play about witches and the spells they cast, “Becky Nurse of Salem” is long on hocus-pocus and short on everything else. Sarah Ruhl’s new play opened Monday at LTC’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.

Becky (Deirdre O’Connell delivering a blizzard of blue-collar mannerisms) works as a guide at the local Salem, Massachusetts, tourist center. She has more bona fides for the job than most employees there because she is the direct descendent of a woman accused of being possessed by the devil during the Salem witch trials of the late 17th century. Not that Becky believes in witches because she doesn’t. Ruhl, on the other hand, appears to be a firm believer.

A very no-nonsense witch (Candy Buckley making some sense of that oxymoron) gives Becky all sorts of potions and abracadabra stuff to make an old boyfriend (Bernard White) fall in love with her. This magic also works momentarily to dispel a young suitor (Julian Sanchez) from pursuing Becky’s granddaughter (Alicia Crowder), and along the way, the witch also causes Becky’s former boss (Tina Benko) at the tour center to have an accident. Becky has been fired from her job for reasons obvious to everyone — but Becky and Ruhl.

Riccardo Hernandez’s sets, Emily Rebholz’s costumes, Barbara Samuels’ lighting, Palmer Hefferan’s sound design and Tal Yarden’s projections under the direction of Rebecca Taichman are what you’d expect from a play that traffics in all the clichés of the genre, from “I Dream of Jeannie” to “The Witches of Eastwick.” For a play that quickly makes the point that only women were accused of being possessed by the devil way back when, Ruhl’s three male characters – the old boyfriend, the young suitor and a cop (Thomas Jay Ryan) – are arguably the most sympathetic in this play. It’s also the old boyfriend who suffers a heart attack at the end of act one, an event in a play flooded with events, which resolves itself sometime during the intermission.

Ruhl not so subtly lets us know that Arthur Miller wrote “The Crucible” at a time when he was in love with Marilyn Monroe but couldn’t yet have sex with Marilyn Monroe because he was married to another woman. This has something to do with his character John Proctor lusting after one of the pubescent girls in the play. It also has something to do with Becky’s addition to opioids, which has something to do with her ancestor’s behavior, which had something to do with her being accused of witchcraft.

For all its frivolity about the broomstick culture, “Becky Nurse of Salem” ends with a turgid speech on why Becky isn’t the one who should be spending time in jail. It’s the Sackler family who should be spending time in jail.

A few members of the Mitzi E. Newhouse audience roused themselves long enough to applaud.  

Robert Hofler, TheWrap's lead theater critic, has worked as an editor at Life, Us Weekly and Variety. His books include "The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson," "Party Animals," and "Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange, How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos." His latest book, "Money, Murder, and Dominick Dunne," is now in paperback.