Dated Comedy Still Brings the Humor

by Regina Ford

arsenic-19-flyerArsenic and Old Lace, directed by Dan Reichel, at the Community Players Playhouse on Oracle, is a farcical dark comedy, written by Joseph Kesselring. The play opened on Broadway on January 10, 1941 and ran 1,444 performances. Frank Capra directed the iconic film version starring Cary Grant in 1944.

This classic, and much-loved chestnut of a play, was an introduction to theatre for many theatre-goers. I think I’ve seen the play at least 10 times, and I wasn’t certain I could sit through it again. Let’s just say that I am very glad that I did.

Here is a tale of Martha and Abby Brewster, two cheerfully eccentric, but sweet and sincere maiden aunties. The women conduct mercy killings by poisoning lonely old men, a practice they believe is charitable by providing them with an early exit from this world. They give each man a proper Christian burial in the cellar of their quaint Brooklyn home. Their nephew, and cynical, dramatic critic, Mortimer Brewster, spends most of the play attempting to clean up his aunts’ messy killing spree and at the same time appease his fiancée, Elaine Harper, the daughter of the minister,  who desperately wants to get married. 

The plot gets more complicated when Jonathan Brewster, Mortimer’s evil, estranged brother and career criminal returns to their Brooklyn home. Jonathan is sporting a Boris Karloff-like face that has been surgically butchered to disguise his identity by the hard-drinking Dr. Einstein. The quack is a fan of Boris Karloff and used his face as a blueprint for Jonathan’s plastic surgery. Then there’s wacky brother, Teddy Brewster, who insists he is President Theodore Roosevelt and believes that the corpses that keep piling up are victims of yellow fever. He enthusiastically buries them in the cellar which he believes is Panama. Mortimer assumes Teddy has finally gone over the edge and is killing the men until he discovers another body in the window seat.

Arsenic and Old Lace is dated, no question, but the shtick is still charming. The show is a quaint interpretation of subject matter that in reality is borderline disturbing. At the time it ran on Broadway and in 1944 when it was a star-studded film, the atrocities of war were at their pinnacle. Arsenic and Old Lace offered escapism from those atrocities. Humor, even surrounding dark topics, is a way of coping for many and I believe the playwright knew this. The  Brewster sisters survive their daily lives with a warped religious explanation for murder. Their idea of salvation is twisted, but how has that changed in the last seven decades? Murder, assisted suicide, mental health issues (not a topic talked about openly at the time) are all issues that have become part of our reality. “Arsenic and Old Lace” is a history lesson of sorts. The sad truth is history repeats itself.

The director’s program notes provide insight into many of the play’s references from yesteryear that may be unfamiliar to audience members. Reichel managed to successfully capture the time period of the play and the set added to the feel of the time. Nikki Belio’s wallpaper did the set proud. I did have to giggle to myself when I noticed the black and white shoe on the first corpse was a Reebok (it was written on the sole).

Joanne Anderson (Martha Brewster) and Bobbi Whitson (Abby Brewster) bonded beautifully onstage. Anderson nailed the trusting persona of a sweet elderly lady so much so that I wanted to drink the arsenic-laced elderberry wine.

The cast had some heavy hitters who embraced their roles. Paul Hammack (Mortimer Brewster) had the bounding energy to keep the lengthy plot flowing with a character style that transported me back in time. Scott Berg (Jonathan Brewster) has a huge stage presence and offered a non-stereotypical twist to his character. Mike Manolakes (Teddy Brewster) took charge immediately and offered a believable burst of zaniness and light to the stage. His facial expressions were addicting. Larry Gutman (Dr. Einstein) played the creepiness of his deranged character with gusto, and Elaine Harper (Shann Oliver) provided the ideal balance and stronger female in all the insanity. 

The Community Players production of Arsenic and Old Lace is a trip back to theatre as I remember from decades ago and an example of how it should be done, by dedicated actors who are brave enough to revive roles from one of the classics.

Arsenic and Old Lace runs through September 22nd at The Community Players Playhouse. For tickets, visit: communityplayerstucson.org.