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Native New Yorker Joseph O. Kesselring’s comic masterpiece Arsenic and Old Lace (1941), which made its Broadway debut on Jan. 10, 1941 at the Fulton Theatre, is still a devilishly funny show in which two ostensibly sweet little old ladies, both pillars of their tight-knit Brooklyn community and locally famous for their charitable works, turn out to be serial killers. Last Friday night, the current Theatre in the Park presentation of this brilliant black comedy, entertainingly orchestrated by guest director David Henderson, had more than a few bumpy moments and took a while to find its comic rhythm. But the community-theater production closed strong, and received a standing ovation at the final curtain.
Triangle theater legend Patsy Clarke is a delight as Abby Brewster, and Naomi Eckhaus is amusing as Martha Brewster. The Brewster sisters are two demure sixtyish heiresses to a patent-medicine fortune, well known for their generosity to their neighbors. What is not known to anyone but a few is that the spinster sisters advertise bargain-priced furnished rooms for gentlemen boarders.
When potential tenants of modest means tell Abby and Martha that they are all alone in the world, without family, without friends, and without hope, the well-meaning but mad sisters literally kill them with kindness, by serving them a glass of homemade elderberry wine, laced with arsenic, plus a dash of strychnine and just a smidgen of cyanide.
When their unsuspecting nephew Mortimer Brewster (Joel T. Horton) accidentally finds out about his aunties’ unusual “hobby,” he plans to blame the killings on his obviously stark-raving-mad brother Teddy (George Jack), who thinks he is President Theodore Roosevelt and dresses and acts accordingly. Teddy also digs a series of “locks” in the basement to bury the 12 “yellow-fever victims” whom his aunts have put out of their misery.
Joel Horton takes a while to settle into his role as a debonair and somewhat cheeky newspaper drama critic who gets the shock of his life when he peaks into the window seat at his aunts’ home; but roly-poly George Jack is a pistol from the opening curtain, bellowing “Charge!” while racing up upstairs as if he were leading the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill.
Lovely Monique Argent is wonderful as Mortimer’s not-so-dumb blonde girlfriend Elaine Harper, a minister’s daughter who throws herself at Mortimer and is increasing perplexed by his strange reluctance to respond to her romantic overtures; and Jason Weeks is terrific as murderous and sadistic Jonathan Brewster, the family bad seed who reluctantly drives back to his childhood home, with a body in the trunk of his stolen car, to hide out from the police. But it is Mike Raab who steals the show as Dr. Einstein, a shaky plastic surgeon who calms his nerves with great gulps of liquor. (In a drunken haze, Dr. Einstein has left Jonathan looking like Boris Karloff in Frankenstein! And Jonathan is not amused.)
Fred Corlett is funny as Officer O’Hara, a garrulous cop who wants to be a playwright and abandons his beat when he gets a chance to pitch his play to Mortimer; and Roger Jones contributes a nice cameo as irritable Lt. Rooney, increasingly exasperated by his inability to find O’Hara. Ryan Brock and Bing C. Cox are good as a pair of not very observant patrolmen; and Jerry Zieman is charming in the dual roles of the Rev. Dr. Harper, Elaine’s stuffy, strait-laced father, and dull-as-dishwater Happy Dale Sanitarium superintendent Mr. Witherspoon.
TIP resident scenic and lighting designer Stephen J. Larson continues to find new and imaginative ways to transcend TIP’s spatial limitations. A full-scale staircase bisected Larson’s marvelous multilevel recreation of the living and dining area of the shabby but genteel Brewster mansion. Given the relatively limited overhead space in the Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre, building an actual staircase for Teddy to race up, bellowing “Charge!,” is quite an achievement.
Steve Larson also subtly lit the proceedings to accent the change from day to evening to night and to underscore the menace that underlies many of the madcap goings-on; and his wife, TIP resident costume designer Shawn Stewart-Larson, outfitted the cast in an impressive array of handsome 1940s fashions.
Arsenic and Old Lace is still potent mixture of madcap comedy and smoldering menace. With a little polish of a few of its comic characterizations, the current Theatre in the Park production can be a must-see comedy.
Theatre in the Park presents Arsenic and Old Lace Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 3-5, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 6, at 3 p.m. in the Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina. $18 ($12 students and seniors). 919/831-6058. Note: The Feb. 3rd performance will be audio described. Theatre in the Park: http://www.theatreinthepark.com/2004-05_productions/arsenic_&_old_lace/arsenic.htm [inactive 9/05]. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/Show.asp?id=1692. Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0036613/.
The Brewster family of New York City playwright Joseph O. Kesselring’s classic black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace, which opens tonight at Theatre in the Park, has a whole raft of skeletons in its closet. Abby and Martha Brewster (Patsy Clarke and Naomi Eckhaus) are two sweet but lethal little old ladies who have turned their Brooklyn, NY home into a boarding house for single gentlemen of modest means, many of whom are lost and lonely souls estranged from or abandoned by their families.
So, as an act of charity, the balmy Brewster sisters put their hapless gentlemen boarders out of their misery by slipping a lethal dose of arsenic into the homemade elderberry wine that they serve guests and then calling their strapping but utterly delusional nephew Teddy (George Jack) to bury their victims’ bodies in the basement. Teddy Brewster thinks that he is Rough Rider Colonel and later President Teddy Roosevelt and that he is charging up San Juan Hill whenever he dashes upstairs. Indeed, every time he digs another grave, Teddy thinks he is digging another lock in the Panama Canal!
All goes well until Martha and Abby’s beloved nephew, drama critic Mortimer Brewster (Joel T. Horton), discovers his aunts’ shocking secret. Mortimer is horrified and desperate to conceal his eccentric aunts’ string of mercy killings — and the apparently virulent strain of madness in the Brewster family DNA — from his fiancée Elaine Harper (Monique Argent).
But before Mortimer can rescue the remaining boarders from his aunts, his long-lost brother and the black sheep of the family — sadistic murderer-on-the-lam Jonathan Brewster (Jason Weeks) — shows up with shaky, hard-drinking plastic surgeon Dr. Einstein (Mike Raab) in tow. Jonathan is furious because his 1940s-style extreme makeover has left him looking like Frankenstein star Boris Karloff! And now Mortimer has to save them all from Jonathan — and his aunts.
"It seems that everyone I talk to first saw or read Arsenic and Old Lacein high school,” says TIP guest director David Henderson. “That holds true for me as well. This is the first production of this play that I have worked on, and it has been a pleasure discovering why this play is a part of the canon of American theater.”
Henderson adds, “I love the fact that this play is timeless. It has been a constant in American theater, and my desire to direct it was to find out why.”
Originally entitled Bodies in Our Cellars but extensively revamped and rewritten by producers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, the highly successful playwriting and producing team behind Life with Father, State of the Union, and The Sound of Music, Arsenic and Old Lace made its Broadway debut on Jan. 10, 1941 at the Fulton Theatre. The show moved to the Hudson Theatre on Sept. 25, 1943, and it finally closed on June 17, 1944 after a then-record 1,444 performances.
In reviewing the original production, New York Times drama critic Brooks Atkinson wrote, “Let’s not exaggerate! At some time there may have been a funnier murder charade than Arsenic and Old Lace… but the supposition is purely academic. Joseph Kesselring has written one so funny none of us will ever forget it.”
Atkinson also wrote, “Nothing in Mr. Kesselring’s record has prepared us for the humor and ingenuity of Arsenic and Old Lace. He wrote There’s Wisdom in Women in 1935 and Cross Town in 1937. But his murder drama is compact with plot and comic situation.… The lines are bright. The story is mad and unhackneyed. Although the scene is always on the verge of macabre and the atmosphere is horribly ominous, Mr. Kesselring does not have to stoop to clutching hands, pistol shots or lethal screams to get his effects. He has written a murder play as legitimate as farce-comedy.”
The 1944 motion-picture version of Arsenic and Old Lace, directed by Frank Capra (It Happened One Night), starred Cary Grant as Mortimer Brewster. But Grant hatedhis performance — Mortimer Brewster was his least-favorite film role — and the debonair actor thought his portrayal was hopelessly flawed by overacting. However, audiences, then and now, disagreed. They love Grant’s frantic double-takes as family matters go from bad to worse.
TIP director David Henderson says, “Arsenic and Old Lace is classic comedy that tells the story of Abby and Martha Brewster (Patsy Clarke and Naomi Eckhaus), two charming and seemingly innocent elderly women who delight in entertaining lonely old men. Convinced that they need to put the old men out of their misery, the sisters poison their unsuspecting guests with their elderberry wine.
"Abby and Martha’s nephew Teddy (George Jack), who thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt, assists them by burying the bodies in cellar. Their mission is complicated,” Henderson claims, “when their nephew Mortimer (Joel Horton), who is dealing with an impatient bride to be, Elaine (Monique Argent), uncovers the plot.”
Henderson adds, “Things get more complex when Mortimer’s long-lost psychotic brother Jonathan (Jason Weeks) returns home with an eccentric plastic surgeon named Einstein (Mike Raab). Unfortunately, Jonathan also has a dead body in tow. Add to this mix a cadre of cops (Bing Cox, Ryan Brock, Fred Corlett, and Roger Jones) and an Episcopal preacher (Jerry Zieman) and you have all the ingredients for great comedy.”
In addition to guest director David Henderson, the production’s creative team includes the critically acclaimed husband-and-wife team of TIP resident scenic and lighting designer Stephen J. Larson and TIP resident costume designer Shawn Stewart-Larson.
David Henderson says, “Steve has created an amazing two-level set that really looks, feels, and even smells like a 1940s Brooklyn home. The minute you see the space, you are transported to another time and place.”
As for lighting, Henderson says, “There are several different ‘looks’ in Arsenic and Old Lace. Some of the scenes require an amber glow, a warmth, while others take place in total darkness. Steve has managed to balance those two looks nicely. The warm/bright moments really bring the house to life; and when the lights go out, there is moonlight through the windows that casts wonderful shadows throughout the house (allowing the audience to see shapes moving, but not exactly what those shapes are doing).”
In describing the show’s period costumes, Henderson notes, “Shawn’s work is right on the money. Her attention to detail is enviable. Shawn has put together a snapshot of 1940s era clothing. A couple of examples are the costumes for Elaine. She is wearing two great vintage dresses, while Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha are wearing wonderful period pieces that Shawn built.”
David Henderson says, “The play is a comedy, and remember the saying ‘Dying is easy, comedy is hard’? We have been living that. The entire ensemble has worked tirelessly to find the rhythm of the piece; and with a three-act play, that can sometimes be a real challenge. The joy has been watching the cast meet the challenge head on and win.
" We had discussed making cuts to the text,” Henderson admits, “but the show is so tightly written, that any change really affects the play.”
Theatre in the Park presents Arsenic and Old Lace Thursday-Saturday, Jan. 27-29 and Feb. 3-5, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 30 and Feb. 6, at 3 p.m. in the Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina. $18 ($12 students and seniors). 919/831-6058. Note 1: There will be a reception following the Jan. 28th performance. Note 2: There will be $10 wine-and-cheese party from 1 to 2:45 p.m. before the Jan. 30th performance. Admission is $10. Note 3: The Feb. 3rd performance will be audio described. Theatre in the Park: http://www.theatreinthepark.com/2004-05_productions/arsenic_&_old_lace/arsenic.htm [inactive 9/05]. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/Show.asp?id=1692. Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0036613/.