The Alley Theatre opens its Summer Chills 2000, the series designed to put some breezy mystery into our otherwise oppressively predictable season, with Arsenic & Old Lace, a 1941 warhorse that has all the kick of a lame mule. Joseph Kesselring's rickety comedy about two tenderhearted, misguided old ladies may be as comforting as the beef broth they deliver to ailing neighbors, but it's also as daffy and dated as the idea that a bowl of greasy soup could medicate anything.
Abby (Bettye Fitzpatrick, whose illness delayed the opening of the Chills series by two days) and Martha Brewster (Lillian Evans), the twinkly-eyed sisters at the center of this tatty tale, are the faded jewels of the Brooklyn neighborhood in which they've grown old. Everyone, from the reverend next door to the Irish cops on the beat, drops by to linger at the old ladies' dining room table, where homey sweetness is offered up in warm cups of tea, flaky hot biscuits and "lovely" quince jam. What nobody realizes, however, is that the sisters' "pure kindness and absolute generosity" have gotten as bent as their aging bodies. In fact, as their doting nephew Mortimer (Todd Waite) soon discovers, theirs is the sort of kindness that kills.
The old women have been coaxing lonely old codgers into their home with the promise of a room to rent. They then offer the single men the last dainty glass of elderberry wine they'll ever have the misfortune to sip. Seems loneliness is nothing that a homespun arsenic cocktail can't remedy.
There is no mystery here. Before the first act is over, we know who's killing whom. The conundrum is poor Mortimer's: Once he discovers that his sweet old aunts are murderers, he must figure out a way to keep them from committing any more "charitable" acts, while preventing the world from discovering the 12 bodies they've already buried in the cellar. Quite a pickle, indeed.
But that's not the half of his troubles. Not only does he have to head to the theater on the night he discovers his aunts' activities -- he's a critic, after all -- but Mortimer must also deal with a cast of meddlesome characters. First, there's his lovable but unstable brother, Teddy (James Belcher), the man with the big toothy grin who thinks he's Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy spends his days and nights running up the stairs yelling "Charge!" and blowing his bugle so loudly that the police are dispatched to quiet things down. Then there's Mortimer's thoroughly modern fiancée, Elaine (Elizabeth Heflin), who is so curious about all the strange happenings that she won't stay away long enough for her future husband to put anything under wraps. Finally there's Jonathan (James Black), a long-lost criminally insane brother who travels with his own plastic surgeon and has been reconstructed to look like Boris Karloff. (Karloff, in fact, played the character in the original production.) Jonathan has suddenly and quite unexpectedly arrived in town with his own dead body in tow. The whole thing is quite impossible, especially since Mortimer, as played by Waite, is filled with all the gee-whiz, bug-eyed innocence that someone named Mortimer ought to be.
These are the twists and turns of a plot written in a different time, before the arts treated insanity seriously, when jokes such as "I've almost come to the conclusion that this Mr. Hitler isn't a Christian" were hilarious. But as we enter the 21st century, this dusty material comes off as too prissily contrived and too insensitive.
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But the script's creaking bones don't prevent the Alley cast from giving it a good, hard workout. They cavort about Kevin Rigdon's rather lackluster Victorian set in grand madcap style. Under Gregory Boyd's direction, the skinny, long-legged Waite finds a kind of impishness in the bamboozled Mortimer. He can double-take with the best of them as he stumbles about the stage looking once, twice, three times into the window-seat box where Abby has stored her latest victim. Fitzpatrick and Evans, as the powdery-faced sisters who kill, are sugary-sweet; they look every bit the prim, Victorian-style ladies, but neither actor brings anything unexpected or surprising to the stage.
The best performances come from the supporting cast. Paul Hope makes memorable the tiny and thankless role of Officer Brophy, who speaks with a thick Irish brogue and is, like all the cops in this story, an absolute ninny as he stuffs down biscuits and tea, utterly blind to the terrible goings-on in the old ladies' house. Wonderful, too, is John Tyson as the sidekick plastic surgeon. He sneaks about the mansion like a shadowy cartoon, his long black trench coat wrapped tight and his wide-brimmed black hat pulled low.
There are scattered laughs throughout the show, and some creepy music at the scene changes, but for the most part, Arsenic & Old Lace has lost its bite. No matter how hard these actors work, they can't make fresh a story that's as faded as the lace in the Brewster sisters' gowns.
Arsenic & Old Lace runs through Saturday, July 15, at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, (713)228-8421. $17.