Arsenic and Old Lace
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 12, 2009
Joseph Kesselring's Arsenic and Old Lace—staple of the community theatre/high school theatre circuit for 50 years now—is perhaps the last thing you'd expect a group like Dysfunctional Theatre Company to take a crack at. I mean, this is the troupe that gave us Hoover: A Love Story with a cross-dressing FBI chieftain and his beloved Clyde Tolson making merry onstage, and before that titles like Sodom and I Am Star Trek.
But the Dysfunctionals are bringing this charmer of a chestnut to the indie theater stage right now, and they're doing it with love and respect and—I think this is exactly the right word—glee. They actually helped me see the play anew, and they gave me a fun evening out in the process. What more can one ask for?
Arsenic and Old Lace takes place in a big old house in downtown Brooklyn on the cusp of World War II. ("I've almost come to the conclusion that this Mr. Hitler isn't a Christian," pronounces Abby Brewster early in the play.) The just-mentioned Abby lives here with her sister, Martha; they're sweet little spinster ladies, beloved by all, passing their days caring for their sick neighbors, feeding passing policemen, and helping lonely old gentlemen to their immortal rest by poisoning them (with a mixture Martha concocted, in a glass of homemade elderberry wine).
Abby and Martha are not the only Brewsters who are—what shall we call them?—batty. Their nephew Teddy, who lives with them, believes that he is President Theodore Roosevelt. He won't make decisions without consulting first his (imaginary) Cabinet. He thinks the neighborhood cops are officers in his Army and makes them salute when they see him. And he doesn't just walk up the stairs to his bedroom; he treats it like San Juan Hill, and makes his ascent/assault yelling "Chaaaaarrrrge!"
And then there's Jonathan, the long-lost black sheep of the family. He's been gone for some time, up to no good, but as the play is just heating up, he arrives at the family manse, his accomplice Dr. Einstein in tow. Jonathan is on the run for a recent murder, and the good doctor, a plastic surgeon, has remade his face to look like a movie star's. Unfortunately the movie star chosen is Boris Karloff, which has put Jonathan in an even worse temper than usual.
At the center of this dizzying menagerie is Mortimer, the sane one, a theatre critic much loved by his aunts. He is engaged to marry Elaine, the smart, pretty daughter of the minister who lives next door to the Brewsters. He should be in seventh heaven—but right now, faced with the new discovery that his aunts are serial killers and that his brother the psychopath is back in town, he has other things on his mind.
The play is extremely sturdy: a Feydeau-esque farce grafted directly onto a Universal '30s horror film (with Karloff built right into the thing!). It's very funny, but's it's also very dark: the laughs all revolve around characters trying to avoid their own imminent murders. Somehow Kesselring keeps it fleet, clever, and lovable.
The Dysfunctional team take almost no liberties with the script, choosing wisely instead to honor its tight construction with the rigorous playing it needs to work. Director Eric Chase keeps the pace antic (and the timing will undoubtedly get tighter and tighter as the run progresses). Marilyn Duryea and Vivian Meisner are neither as cloyingly sweet or as archly edgy as others I've seen as the aunts. Justin Plowman, who does not particularly look like Boris Karloff (and has not been made up to do so) has the diabolical laugh and crazed instincts of his character down to a "t." Rob Brown is suitably harried as Mortimer, while Jennifer Gill is a very likable, sassy Elaine. The true standouts in the company are Ron Bopst, whose turn as the increasingly worried Dr. Einstein is very funny, and Peter Schuyler, who makes us believe that he believes he is TR with every "Bully!" and "Deeeelighted!" and, especially, memorably, charge up the staircase.
Chase uses the Kraine's intimate space shrewdly, with the swinging doors at the rear of the stage particularly well-used. The production design is appropriate and evocative.
I wouldn't have guessed when the season started that a 1941 comedy that is one of Broadway's all-time biggest hits would have been a highlight of the indie theater calendar. Yet here it is: give Arsenic and Old Lace a whirl. I think you'll have a good time.