Review: Arsenic and Old Lace by Different Stages
by Michael Meigs
Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring is one of those whimsical comedies that just won't die. The playwright wins our sympathies with a pair of comforting maiden aunts, their capable journalist nephew Mortimer and a sweet parson's daughter. He then plays a series of clever modulations in madness -- from the harmless to the surprising to the pathological.
The play and the Jimmy Stewart movie are familiar, so this review's not likely to spoil it for anyone. You already knew about the poisoned elderberry wine, right? And the fact that Mortimer's brother Teddy, nutty as a fruitcake, has been helping his aunts by excavating 'Panama Canal locks' in the basement for use as the final resting places for a succession of lonely old men?
If you didn't, my apologies to you. But don't worry, for that surprise comes early in the action, as much for our protagonist Mortimer as for the audience. His quandary is how to deal with this revelation that, incredibly, has escaped his attention for months or maybe for years.
Entirely normal except for their characters' belief in the beneficial effects of poison, Jennifer Underwood and Karen Jambon as the maiden aunts are mild, sweet and droll. It's a treat to see these partners playing together. Jambon's little-lady bird-steps are a bit affected, but otherwise these admirable actresses are the sorts with whom you'd love to bake gingerbread.
Joe Hartman's bully portrait of Teddy (not) Roosevelt is a lot of fun, too -- especially in those moments when he backs ecstatically wide-eyed into the basement stairway. And while we're handing out compliments, bravo for Sarah Danko as Mortimer's girlfriend/fiancée Elaine. The lines assigned to her were written for a meek and progressively frustrated young thing, but Danko gives them an indignant bite often enough to suggest that maybe she's more of a woman that the hapless Mortimer actually deserves.
Tyler Jones as our protagonist Mortimer is lightweight and discombobulated more often than not, generally overcome by events. Jones could have done much more with the key moment when he first discovers the lifeless body of the most recent victim of the aunts' hospitality, tucked into the windowseat. The audience already knows what's there; they would have gone really gleeful if they'd had been offered the chance to track Mortimer's dawning realization through a double or even a triple take. In like wise, more could be telegraphed and played with Mortimer's realization in act three that no, he shouldn't get married after all, because his entire family is wacko. But we enjoy Jones throughout, and this experienced comic actor is sure to get more assured and funnier as the run progresses.
Arsenic and Old Lace would have been a simple one-act entertainment if Kesselring hadn't inserted his third plot twist, the appearance of brother Jonathan. This final Brewster is the evil one, a sociopathic and homicidal threat to the aunties, to their merely philanthropic euthanasia campaign, and to everyone else in sight. The joke was wildly successful in the original production in part because evil brother was played by the immediately recognizable horror film star Boris Karloff. The prodigal brother arrives with his personal plastic surgeon, the boozy Dr. Einstein whose most recent alteration of Jonathan's face took place after an alcoholic evening of watching horror movies. Practically all of acts two and three is the systematic, farcical and regularly accidental frustration of the murderous ambitions of the bad brother.
Director Norman Blumensaadt cast Different Stages regular Stephen Fay as the Boris Karloff/Jonathan villain, and you could argue that may have been a mistake. The play is most effective when we fear Jonathan, who recalls with pleasure the dozen times he has killed men with his own hands. Fry hams it up behind that thick layer of messy makeup, but he's big and soft and not convincing as a murderer. His foil is Porter Gandy as Einstein, who's appealingly abashed by all Jonathan's bad behavior
Minor roles are well executed -- or I mean, performed, since no one actually gets a fatal chop on stage. Cast cameos are crisply drawn and convincing: Andy Brown as the flatfoot who's a would-be novelist, Sebastian Garcia and Grayson Little as the helpful policemen on the beat (Little has a lovely turn of Irish lilt in his speech) and, particularly, Mick D'Arcy doubling as Elaine's father the painfully polite Episcopal priest next door and as the brashly confident police lieutenant in the final act. Mike Dellens should have been cast either as the early escapee from the aunties' poisoning or as the looney bin superintendent, not as both; unlike D'Arcy, he doesn't have the range to differentiate between his two assigned characters.
But let me not discourage anyone! Unlike Mortimer, who's disenchanted with his assignment as the newspaper's drama critic, I'm pleased and entertained to see this warhorse pulled out of the stable and put through its paces. I don't intend to nickle and dime the staging (one tech note, though: that basement door does need a bit more masking behind the hinged edge). Arsenic and Old Lace is sweet fun, especially for the holidays. Don't we all enjoy spending time with our maiden aunts and nutty family?
November 15 - December 14, 2013
2307 Manor Road
Austin, TX, 78722
Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm
Sundays at 7pm
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