Mercy killing as madcap mayhem. Corpses hidden, moved, buried and discovered like dogs at the bone. Insanity brushed aside as the eccentricity of personality. Sweet old sisters who wouldn't think of committing a beloved nephew to a mental institution but then relent if they can go too. A villian hard to take seriously since he looks a lot like a horror movie star.
Decades before Joe Orton and Michael Frayn, John Guare and Christopher Durang, there was Joseph Kesselring. His hilariously endearing 1941 Arsenic and Old Lace is one of twentieth-century theater's warhorse blends of satire and farce. Innocent despite its outrageousness and warm-hearted even though it's murderous, Arsenic and Old Lace is a good-time old-time theatrical wink at just about everything sacred.
Genial, sophisticated Mortimer Brewster, a drama critic who saves time by writing his reviews on the way to the theatre, visits his doting and dotty aunts. He disbelievingly discovers that Abby and Martha, these seemingly harmless and fairy godmotherly old ladies who donate toys to policemen's charities and who would never ever stoop to telling a fib, are poisoning lonely old men as an act of charity. Advertising for boarders, they lure elderly bachelors, and induce them to drink their lethally delicious elderberry wine. They then deposit the body in their window seat, tell their strange nephew, Mortimer's brother, Teddy (as in Roosevelt) -- that there's been another yellow fever victim, and, after proper funeral services, get the bugle-blowing "president" to bury him in the Panama Canal, I mean the basement.
These kindly souls, who've "almost come to the conclusion that this Hitler is not a Christian," believe they are simply doing a good deed -- a kind of involuntary euthanasia pre-Dr. Kevorkian.
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Enter Jonathan, another brother -- a long-lost bad seed and now hit man -- shows up on the lam, toting his own corpse. What makes Jonathan really mad is being told he resembles Boris Karloff, which he does; his polite accomplice, Dr. Einstein (no, not that one), an unlicensed plastic surgeon, got drunk during an identity-changing operation. Jonathan's plans interfere with Mortimer's and vice versa. Oh, there's also a beautiful girl next door, Elaine, who's bent on marrying Mortimer.
And this is only the first act.
What makes Arsenic and Old Lace so much fun -- besides the breakneck pace of its frequent farce and the physical comedy of its occasional slapstick -- is its singularly aggressive humor: comedy that doesn't sting even when it cuts, since it's delivered by likable nuts. Shots taken by entertaining kooks are inviting, not confrontational. Even bad guy Jonathan is quaint: not only is he sensitive about his appearance
-- which makes him amusingly scary -- but he also pouts because his "amateur" aunts have killed as many people as he has.
There are barbs about religion, morality,the theater, the police, love and marriage. And there are endless one-liners: "You know that hole in the cellar?" Dr. Einstein, discovering the corpses, asks Jonathan, "Well, we got an ace in that hole."
Frequently performed at summer stock, regional, and school theaters, Arsenic and Old Lace, originally titled Bodies in Our Cellar, was so successful in its Broadway premiere that it ran for more than three years. Boris Karloff spoofed himself by playing Jonathan. It was produced -- and perhaps textually revised -- by the famed team of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse (Anything Goes, Life with Father, State of the Union, The Sound of Music). Frank Capra directed the 1944 hit movie version, which starred Cary Grant as Mortimer, Raymond Massey as Jonathan, and Peter Lorre as Dr. Einstein. In 1955, CBS aired an acclaimed television version featuring Helen Hayes and Billie Burke as the Brewster sisters and Orson Bean as Mortimer, with Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff revising their roles. Jean Stapleton, Polly Holliday, and Tony Roberts headed the cast of a 1986 Broadway revival.
Everything looks right in Chris Wilson's production at the Actors Theatre of Houston. Darrin Butters and Jim Jeter's set sets off a terrific first impression: covering two-and-a-half floors and running virtually the entire length and width of the theater, it's full of period furniture, lace covered tables, silver tea sets, auntie-ish bibelots. Terrific use is made of space, from diplomas on walls to rooms we never see into, to the front door hanging where the audience enters and exits. An intimacy is created by having the audience sit above either side of the stage; viewers truly look into the Brewster's warm, pink-colored home.
The actors quite capably perform in this in-the-round type setting. Particularly outstanding is Sharon Bennett: the "oohs" her Martha speaks at the beginning of nearly every sentence carry just the right inflection of soft clucking. Ruth Ann Black's Abby is a bit more earnest than dithering, but her character's sincerity rings true. These actresses flow into each other and overlap, as loving sisters would, when they announce that Jonathan's "impostor" corpse is sadly mistaken if he came with the expectation of being buried in their cellar.
The rest of the principal performers look their parts. Literally. Steven McDowell's Teddy bears a passing resemblance to Roosevelt; Dan Flahive's Jonathan has Karloff's eyebrows and nose; Lonnie Reeves' Einstein isn't a bad Peter Lorre; Allen Dorris' Mortimer carries himself somewhat like Cary Grant.
If you assume these famous outward appearances, you had better make sure that the performances bear them out. The text calls for Roosevelt and Karloff similarities. Though he neglects to shade Teddy as the untouchable innocent he is, McDowell is quite convincing, especially with his body movements, as the would-be President who screams "Charge!" as he unleashes an imaginary sword and ascends a staircase he thinks is San Juan Hill. Flahive makes his eyes suitably monstrous, but he overuses his voice, melodramatically bellowing too much to be a wickedly delicious Karloff takeoff.
The actors playing the Cary Grant and Peter Lorre characters follow their famous film predecessors a bit too closely -- or not closely enough -- instead of offering their own take on characterizations. Dorris captures more of Grant's physical energy than his offhanded charm. And Reeves' has Lorre's breathy German down, but not his insinuating attitude. Unless one has the abilities of Rich Little, one should stay away from imitation.
But director Wilson steers everybody where they need to go. From her very appropriate nod to Gilbert and Sullivan on one of the stage walls, to how she has her actors charge off the set after curtain calls, Wilson is in complete command. Even down to the presidential outfits and Judith Anderson-esque mourning dresses.
Though the play runs a bit long at nearly three hours, Actors Theatre mounts a sturdy, professional production of a grand old play.
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