Arsenic and Old Lace was a long-running Broadway hit, with 1,444 performances from 1941 to 1944, and was made into a hugely successful Frank Capra movie starring Cary Grant. Legend has it that playwright Joseph Kesselring wrote the play as a drama, and that producers Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse persuaded him that it worked better as a comedy - and it does. The fact that it is currently on three Houston stages is a tribute to the universal and enduring appeal of a well-constructed farce.
They say a play is in trouble if they notice the set, but such is not the case here. Once the fun begins, the set becomes wallpaper, so savor it while waiting for the opening onslaught. The flocked mauve wallpaper above the paneled chair-rail wooden paneling could not be better, or more period (it is 1941), and the detailed crown molding is magnificent. It's the kind of set God would have built, if He'd had the money. Scenic designer Mark A. Lewis has constructed a spectacular setting for a triumphant comedy.
The Brewster family members are a few cards short of a full deck, as Teddy Brewster (Stephen Hurst) thinks he is President Teddy Roosevelt, and is fond of blowing a bugle as he charges up San Juan Hill. His two aunts, Abby Brewster (Patty Tuel Bailey) and Martha Brewster (Stephanie Bradow), are sweet and adorable, and given to charitable deeds, such as poisoning older men with cyanide-laced elderberry wine to free them of the burden of loneliness. Less sweet, but also homicidal, is Jonathan Brewster (Marty Blair), who returns to the large Brooklyn home after a decades-long absence, looking like Boris Karloff, thanks to some less-than-skilled plastic surgery performed while under the influence by his alcoholic accomplice Dr. Einstein (Marion Arthur Kirby).
Theater critic Mortimer Brewster (Kevin Dean) proposes to Elaine Harper (Julie Fontenot) but has second thoughts after he realizes that his aunts are murderesses, saying "Insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops." Dean provides a delightful characterization, his body language is comically superb, and he is a master at the delayed double-take. Fontenot has little to do except look slim and beautiful, and she does that well. Bailey and Bradow as the well-intentioned aunts bubble with good will, and are endearing. Hurst brings unflagging energy to his role as "Teddy Roosevelt" and is delightful in his firm commitment to his mad beliefs.
Jonathan's role as a look-alike Boris Karloff was played by Karloff himself on Broadway. I had always connected Karloff with silky menace, except for the Frankenstein monster, but Blair portrays him as a loud-mouthed bully, more like Al Pacino on a bad-hair day. It is a gruesome portrayal, largely unsuited to the tone of the play, which is warm and sweet, despite the plethora of bodies in the basement. Kirby as Dr. Einstein captures his villainy, while also showing a crack in his criminal veneer.
There are some other minor roles. Craig Griffin is excellent as police officer Rooney, who has written a play and insists on describing it to the Brewsters. Jason Hatcher is good as officer Brophy, and Chip Simmons is good in several roles, especially as Mr. Witherspoon. Costume design by Patty Tuel Bailey is appropriate, including Mortimer's argyle socks.
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Many farces rely heavily upon repeated misunderstandings, but not here - Kesselring's excellent plotting, deft characterizations, and gift for inventive wit are outstanding. Director Joey Watkins has done a fine job in delivering the desired breakneck speed, and creating authentic relationships in the midst of turmoil. We see the aunts' love for Teddy and Mortimer, a love Mortimer returns, and believe in the romantic attraction between Mortimer and Elaine.
This is a wonderful, richly comic production, with a brilliant set, a strong cast and an outstanding comic turn by Kevin Dean. See it, but be careful of the elderberry wine.
Arsenic and Old Lace continues through October 6, from A.D. Players at Grace Theater, 2710 W. Alabama. For information or ticketing, call 713-526-2721 or contact www.adplayers.org.