Playwright Joseph Kesselring may have written only one enduring hit in his lifetime, but endure Arsenic And Old Lace most certainly has, its latest revival by Inland Valley Repertory Theatre providing 2014 audiences with as many laughs as must have greeted the black comedy’s Broadway debut back in 1941.
Movie buffs will recall Arsenic And Old Lace from its Frank Capra-directed 1944 film adaptation, a Golden Era classic starring Cary Grant as writer Mortimer Brewster, who discovers to his dismay that his elderly aunts Abby and Martha have been systematically killing off one after another of their over-the-hill lodgers before burying their victims downstairs in the basement.
Call this “murder,” however, and you’ll get a loud and hearty “Not guilty!” from these self-proclaimed angels of mercy, whose homemade elderberry wine (laced with arsenic, strychnine, and “just a pinch of cyanide”) has saved one senior citizen after another from the loneliness of old age.
Mortimer’s discovery of Aunts Abby and Martha’s murderous “good deeds” couldn’t come at a less opportune time, the drama critic’s impending nuptials with the lovely Elaine placed in jeopardy by the realization that there may well be killers’ blood rushing through his veins.
Certainly there is already more than enough evidence of madness under the Brewster family roof, and not simply because Mortimer’s dearest aunties appear to be homicidal maniacs. Mortimer’s older brother Teddy lives under the delusion that he is former President Theodore Roosevelt (“Charge!!!”), and that the graves he’s been digging down in Abby and Martha’s basement are actually locks for TR’s pet project, the Panama Canal.
And speaking of murderers, Mortimer just happens to have a torture-loving serial killer as a brother, though anyone running into Jonathan Brewster might have a hard time recognizing the little boy “who liked to cut worms in two—with his teeth,” and not simply because he’s grown into manhood. No, if Jonathan now looks more like the spitting image of horror movie star Boris Karloff than himself, it’s thanks to his loyal henchman Dr. Einstein and his gifts as a plastic surgeon.
All of the above characters (and they are characters!) converge under the Brewster family roof, along with Elaine’s preacher dad, a would-be tenant who fits Abby and Martha’s criteria to a T, a quartet of police officers, and the loony bin superintendent who might hold the solution to Mortimer’s dilemma. Then again, can there really be a happy ending for any Brewster when you’ve got murder in your genes?
Though Arsenic And Old Lace could stand some trimming around the middle to cut it down to a more 21st Century-friendly two-hour running time, there’s no denying its many charms, tops of which are its matching protagonists, whose purity of heart is matched only by the lethalness of their arsenic-strychnine-cyanide “cocktail.”
Playwright Kesselring mines laughs aplenty from Mortimer’s unfortunate choice of métiers (could it be any sadder that the poor guy has to review a new play every night when it’s public knowledge how much he hates the theater?), from Jonathan’s unfortunate choice of surgically altered faces (couldn’t Dr. Einstein have made him look like someone more leading mannish than the actor who first gave us Frankenstein’s monster?), and from the local cops’ absolute cluelessness to the crimes being committed right under their noses (are these four really some of New York’s finest?).
For their 2014 season opener, director Frank Minano and assistant director Hope Kaufman have handpicked a cast of IVRT favorites and newcomers, beginning with Cindi East and Ann Thomas, whose effervescent joy at playing Abby and Martha proves contagious, the matched pair provoking one rib-tickling laugh after another.
Tony Collins (Lt. Rooney), Anthony Flynn (Officer Brophy), Patrick McMahon (Officer O’Hara), and Andrew Perez (Officer Klein) have clearly done their 1940s movie homework, the better to create four Brooklyn cops of a bygone era, and the same can be said about Tess Stites-Hallet’s smart and sassy girl-next-door Elaine, Michael Buczynski’s hysterically bonkers Teddy, David Billman’s good old-fashioned Reverend Harper, Shaun Fesler’s nearly ill-fated Mr. Gibbs, and Duane Thomas’s folksy Mr. Witherspooon.
Ultimately, though, it’s Arsenic And Old Lace’s trio of male stars who turn playwright Kesserling’s three most colorful characters into the evening’s most memorable performances. Jeff Lowe plays Mortimer like the love child of Steve Martin and Dan Akroyd with an innate comedic flair that proves irresistible; Spencer Weitzel, the man who stole bleach blonde Billie Dawn’s heart from junk mogul Harry Brock in last year’s Born Yesterday, channels Boris Karloff to perfection as Jonathan; and Ken Lay gives us just enough Peter Lorre to make Dr. Einstein both creepy and kooky (as well as mysterious and spooky).
Set modifier Mark MacKenzie has taken My Fair Lady’s Henry Higgins’ London digs and transformed them quite ingeniously into the Brewsters’ Brooklyn home (talk about a perfect fit for a midweek production performed on a mainstage set), with Daniel Moorefield scoring high marks for his lighting design, Cindy Smith for her props, Cliff Senior for the ladies’ wigs, and Jenny Wentworth for her bevy of 1940s costumes. Andrew Pina’s sound design worked mostly quite well on Opening Night despite a mercifully brief mike glitch at the beginning of Act One, though the choice of silence during blackouts might be rethought.
Claremont theatergoers can once again thank their lucky stars for Inland Valley Repertory Theatre, whose Arsenic And Old Lace is sure to delight older folks who’ve loved the Joseph Kesselring classic since back in the day, as well as younger audiences who’ll likely get every bit the same kick out of this timeless gem of theatrical Americana as their elders.
Candlelight Pavilion, 455 West Foothill Boulevard, Claremont.
February 19, 2014
Photos: Kylee Parks