Arsenic and Old Lace

Perfect foils: Dixie Carter as Abby and Mia Dillon as Martha.
T. Charles Erickson

It may be old, but it's certainly not weary — Joseph Kesselring's murderous comedy Arsenic and Old Lace premiered on Broadway in 1941, and you'd think the story about two old-maid killers would feel a little bit tired at this point. After all, just about every high school and community theater in the country has put on at least one production of the story in the last 70-odd years. Even the Alley Theatre, where the deadly tale is currently running, recently produced the play during its Summer Chills season. But director Gregory Boyd proves that old dogs can still bite with this hilarious and surprisingly youthful production.

The story focuses on the Brewster sisters, Abby (Dixie Carter) and Martha (Mia Dillon), two kindly old maids who lure "lonely" men to their Brooklyn Brownstone with an ad for a room to let. Once the men arrive, the very kindly ladies serve up a glass of sweet wine that has quite a kick to it. Laced with three different poisons, the tender tonic sends the men straight to the grave that's been dug for them in the Brewster basement, courtesy of the old ladies' kooky nephew Teddy (James Belcher), a man who believes he's actually Teddy Roosevelt.

As terrible as this all sounds, the sisters aren't as evil as their actions make them seem. They just hate to see lonely men running around the city. The old girls are trying to help strangers get off to a better, happier place, and they even conduct private funerals. Things are going fine until one day when their other nephew, the perfectly sane Mortimer Brewster (Todd Waite), finds one of the ladies' dead "gentlemen" hidden in the window seat, waiting for his funeral. Poor Mortimer had no idea how active his sweet old aunts have been. And once he learns the extent of their hobby — there's 12 bodies in the basement! — he's got to figure out a plan that will keep his favorite aunts out of prison and stop them from killing any more men with their bizarre brand of kindness.


Arsenic and Old Lace

Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.

Through November 4. Tickets start at $21.

Even harder, Mortimer, who's a theater critic, has to go to work — though he says he'll write his review on the way to the theater. He also must keep his fiancée, who lives next door, in the dark while he figures out how all the craziness in his family will affect him. He thinks maybe he shouldn't get married, because he's a Brewster, after all. And though Mortimer is clearly the only reasonable one of the bunch, who knows what he's capable of?

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Old as it is, Kesselring's writing remains a joy. It's full of goofy fun, and the writer keeps us guessing up to the very end. He complicates the already twisted tale with a whole slew of clownish characters. There's the arrival of Jonathan (James Black), yet another nephew — this one's escaped from prison with his oddball sidekick Dr. Einstein (John Tyson). Jonathan's a killer just like his aunts, but he's the scary kind, not the well-­intentioned sort. Among the other characters coming through the Brewsters' front door are the neighborhood cops, who enjoy the sisters' fine cooking. Usually there's a body somewhere nearby, but the cops are always too lunkheaded and too hungry to realize what's going on right under their official noses.

Making this production especially strong is the Alley's fabulous cast, starting with Carter's very spunky Abby. Carter's Abby might be elderly, but her carriage is full of girlish grins. And she moves with a flirty, coltish grace that is utterly charming. Dillon's more sedate Martha creates a perfect foil for the more outlandish sister.

Waite's Mortimer is a comedic dream. He knows how to make the big wide double take feel fresh and funny. And his long, lanky body is perfect for all the physical humor in the show. Every gesture is larger than life and all the funnier for it.

Smaller characters played by Paul Hope, David Rainey and Charles Krohn will keep you smiling. And Judith Dolan's lovely costumes, along with Hugh Landwehr's Victorian set, make an appropriately busy background for all the shenanigans. While it's true that there's nothing new here, it's reassuring that some old warhorses can hold their own in a fight now and again.

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