The Brewster Sisters are at it again, bumping off their elderly male lodgers in the name of human kindness, in Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s delectably performed, gorgeously designed intimate revival of Joseph Kesselring’s 1941 Broadway hit Arsenic And Old Lace.

JB Waterman stars as New York drama critic Mortimer Brewster, who discovers to his dismay that his 70something rooming house owner aunts Abby (Sheelagh Cullen) and Martha (Jacque Lynn Colton) have been sparing their over-the-hill boarders the loneliness of old age by serving them a special blend of homemade elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine, and “just a pinch of cyanide.”

Mortimer’s realization that there may well be killers’ blood rushing through his veins could hardly come at a more inopportune time, the theaterphobic reviewer  having only just proposed to the lovely Elaine Harper (Liesel Kopp), though truth be told, there’s already more than enough evidence of madness under the Brewster family roof.

Mortimer’s brother Teddy (Alex Elliott-Funk) 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 T.R.’s pet project, the Panama Canal.

And speaking of murderers, Mortimer’s other sibling Jonathan (Gera Hermann) turns out to be a torture-loving serial killer who’s transformed himself into the spitting image of horror movie star Boris Karloff thanks to his loyal henchman Dr. Einstein’s (Ron Bottitta) gifts as a plastic surgeon.

All of the above characters (and what characters they are!) converge under the Brewster family roof, along with Elaine’s preacher pops the Rev. Dr. Harper (Alan Abelew), a would-be tenant (Abelew as Mr. Gibbs) who fits Abby and Martha’s criteria to a T, a quartets of policemen (Michael Antosy, Darius De La Cruz, and Mat Hayes as Officers O’Hara, Klein, and Brophy and Yusef Lambert as Lieutenant Rooney) and loony bin superintendent Mr. Witherspoon (Abelew), 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?

Playwright Kesselring mines chuckles aplenty from Mortimer’s self-acknowledged hatred of the theater, from Jonathan’s unfortunate choice of surgically altered faces, and from the local cops’ absolute cluelessness to the crimes being committed right under their noses.

These laughs and more have made Arsenic And Old Lace an enduring golden-age delight for the past seventy-six years, and though Kesselring’s biggest Broadway credit could stand some 21st-century mid-show trims, its many charms shine bright at the Odyssey, where Elina de Santos has assembled an absolutely fabulous ensemble, then fine-tuned their performances to uproarious effect.

As the take-charge Abby and the dithery Martha, Cullen and Colton are nonstop treats in roles the stage vets were clearly born to play, and play them they do, to the hilt.

Waterman’s Mortimer combines 1940s-style leading man charm (equal parts Jimmy Stewart and Hank Fonda) with terrific timing and a gift for physical comedy, and leading lady Kopp gives Elaine plenty of Roz Russell-meets-Carole Lombard charm and sass.

Supporting standouts abound, chief among them Elliott-Funk’s gloriously gung-ho Teddy Roosevelt and Antosy’s quintessentially feisty Irish flatfoot.

Hermann’s sinister Eastern Europeanesque killer and Bottitta’s wild-and-crazy German sidekick both score creepy-kooky laughs, Abelew creates a distinctive trio of wacky cameos, and speaking of topnotch threesomes, De La Cruz, Hayes, and Lambert have each come up with his own signature NYPD cop.

Scenic designer Bruce Goodrich’s impeccably detailed upstairs-downstairs living room set (kudos shared with properties designer Josh La Cour) would look just as spiffy at Playhouses Pasadena or Geffen.

Leigh Allen scores high lighting design marks, and never more so than when the electricity gets turned off, Amanda Martin’s period costumes are early-‘40s gems (Victorian for the Brewster girls), and Christopher Moscatiello’s delightful sound design mixes quirky music and effects to perfection.

Morgan Wilday is stage manager. Ellen Boener and Everett Keeter are assistant directors. Jenine MacDonald is fight choreographer.

Joseph Kesselring may have but a single Broadway hit to be remembered by, but what a hit he has to his name. As the Odyssey Theatre Company’s latest makes abundantly clear, we should all have the Arsenic And Old Lace playwright’s luck!

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Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 South Sepulveda Boulevard, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
September 1, 2017
Photo: Enci Box

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