Eccentricity is the lifeblood of American comedy, but it’s doubtful that any playwright in our history has written a lighter comedy at the edge of darkness than Joseph Kesselring when he brought us the Brewster family in Arsenic and Old Lace. One member of the clan thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt. His two spinster aunts have sped 12 lonely old folk to their graves, conveniently located in the aunts’ cellar, by serving up their home-made elderberry wine – spiked with arsenic, strychnine, and a pinch of cyanide. Teddy’s brother Jonathan, a homicidal maniac, has dispatched 12 victims of his own in his global travels, but not quite so inconspicuously. A drunken plastic surgeon accompanies Jonathan to help keep him a step ahead of his latest wanted poster – with surgeries so shoddy that Jonathan now looks like Boris Karloff (who originated the role onstage in 1941). The sanest member of the Brewster family is Mortimer, and he’s a theatre critic! With over a dozen roles to divvy out, demanding various levels of expertise, Arsenic remains popular with our community theatres. Matthews Playhouse, Fort Mill Playhouse, and Piedmont Players have all done productions in Metrolina since the last time Theatre Charlotte brought out the elderberry in 1997. The current effort at Theatre Charlotte is anything but a humdrum revival.
Fun begins as soon as you gaze upon Chris Timmons’ set design, which scorns the customary evocations of prissy spinsterhood. Windows, doors, the clock on the wall, the portrait of the family patriarch, and even the infamous window seat are all twisted and askew, with patches on the walls that I’d describe as a Smurf funhouse if the pastels weren’t so drab and dingy. Laciness and prissiness are reserved for the cordial Brewster sisters in Barbara Wesselman’s fine costume scheme. Aside from the pith helmet favored on Broadway and onscreen, Teddy has a minimum of regalia to substantiate his pretensions, and Jonathan has a dire Jack-the-Ripper seediness. Among the principals, Mortimer and his preacher’s daughter girlfriend, Elaine Harper, give us the clearest indications that we’re in the 40s, but the constabulary with their Keystone Kop uniforms are similarly antique. Fitting the Halloween season, the lighting design pours on the Grand Guignol to comical excess when Jonathan fiendishly ponders murdering his brother Mortimer – and breaking the 12-12 tie with his kindly aunts.
With so many gifted but underemployed actors in the Charlotte area, Theatre Charlotte routinely explodes community theatre expectations, and the key actors, directed here by Polly Adkins, are mostly beyond the threshold of professional status. I’m hard-pressed to decide who was most excelling, but I’ll need to give Joe McCourt the honor, simply because he was the best Mortimer that I’ve seen onstage, and he drove the action, attempting damage control after proposing marriage to Elaine. There did not appear to be a single fleck of Cary Grant from the 1944 movie, yet it seems apt enough to describe McCourt’s performance as a satisfying synthesis of Jimmy Stewart’s casual integrity and Dick Van Dyke’s physical comedy – a gratifying surprise in the wake of his work in Rent and Godspell, if that’s all of McCourt that you’ve seen. Just as important to making this comedy confection work was Ginger Heath’s deliciously obtuse serenity as Aunt Abby Brewster. But if I gush about Heath being the best Abby I’ve seen anywhere, doesn’t that wreck my credibility when I declare that Stuart Spencer was hands down the best Teddy I’ve experienced – and the first not to cause me to gnash my teeth with his repeated San Juan Hill charges up the Brewster staircase? If these two brothers weren’t frenetic enough, Michael Harris kicked it up a couple notches as Jonathan, abetted by some lurid make-up while matched ideally – like his recent title role in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo – with a role that he can’t overact.
Of course, the alchemy of Jonathan’s comedy was largely the result of being paired with a panicky sidekick, and Matt Kenyon did this Dr. Einstein to fretful perfection, not at all a drunken stumblebum, but still an unmistakably sleazy homage to Peter Lorre. In the company of all this excellence, Michelle Fleschman may have been underappreciated in the underwritten role of Elaine, while Sandra McAlister was merely outclassed by her Brewster sister as Aunt Martha. Even on opening night, there were no serious cracks throughout the cast, and entering the second week, this demanding comedy that clocks in at 1:59 plus two intermissions should grow even tighter and more seamless. I’m also optimistic that Jeff Madar’s accent as Officer Klein, which wandered uncontrollably between Brooklyn and Boston, will find safe harbor in one of those places and anchor there.
Arsenic and Old Lace continues through Sunday, November 10. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.