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.

 

       

 

Wit, One-Liners, and Mystery Make for a Pretty Killer Play

by Holly Griffith

Arizona Rose Theatre’s production of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Nile has all the staples of a good British detective story: colorful suspects, wry wit, and most importantly, a puzzle of motives. The story takes place aboard a cruise on the Nile River. A love triangle between the wealthy Kay Ridgeway (Diana Ouradnik), her new husband Simon Mostyn (John Reimann), and his ex-lover Jacqueline de Severac (Michele Holland) motivates most of the action. Simon and Kay are on their honeymoon, and the jealous Jacqueline has followed them, appearing unexpectedly to ruin their romance. When Kay is murdered in her bed one night, all fingers are pointed at Jacqueline. Kay’s uncle, Canon Ambrose Pennefather (Michael Shipione) serves as the detective, and he discovers that things are not as they seem.

The cast of Murder on the Nile. Photo courtesy of Arizona Rose Theatre.

The cast of Murder on the Nile. Photo courtesy of Arizona Rose Theatre.

First-time director Ron Kari achieves that delicate balance required of a murder mystery—planting clues subtly enough that we can’t quite put them together immediately, but clearly enough that we remember them when all is revealed. No spoilers, but this cast does a great job of throwing us off the scent. Stephanie Howell’s earnest innocence as Christine and Ouradnik’s measured elegance as Kay are particularly solid performances. Holland as Jackie and Leah Kari as Miss ffoliot-ffolkes [spelled correctly!] add some juice to the production—both actors bring the villainy without being too over-the-top. With its twists and turns and witty one-liners, this play is just plain fun.

At times, a sharper pace would have helped the production a great deal. While the mystery plot is negotiated masterfully, a few comic moments fall flat, and some of the suspense is squeezed out by a tempered pace. Speed would achieve two major things for this story. First, it would let some of the jokes really smack us in the face—in a good way. Second, it would cause the audience to sit on the edge of their chairs and follow the action with more energy. If an audience is asked to keep up, rather than merely follow along, the whole room is infused with excitement.

A word of praise for costumer Leah Rosthenhausler. The costumes are multitudinous — many characters have multiple outfits, complete with hats and accessories. Garments are period-appropriate without looking dusty, extremely well fitting, flattering, and expensive-looking. The actors all looked comfortable and confident. The set by Ruben Rosthenhausler, Luke Howell, and Mike Howell is functional and richly dressed. However, I found the moving video of the exterior landscape somewhat distracting. While realistic, it didn’t quite fit, especially in the world of 1940’s Egypt. The creativity is commendable, but I’m not sure that the idea worked in this instance.

I’d like to address the question of racial stereotype in this production. Agatha Christie wrote the first version of this story in 1937 and adapted it for the stage in 1944. Christie’s depiction of Egyptians is not particularly progressive, even for its time. She writes the two Egyptian bead merchants as pushy and money-hungry, a nuisance for the proper English passengers trying to board their riverboat. This depiction alone is problematic, but I was disappointed to see two white actors cast in the roles. Their over-the-top accents and wacky personalities bordered on minstrelsy. I was relieved to see that they didn’t figure prominently in the rest of the play, but I wondered if those characters could have been cut altogether. They didn’t add much to the plot or even to the atmosphere, and instead made me cringe. The other Egyptian character, a steward aboard the boat, is also played by a white actor. While the steward character isn’t nearly as problematic, I wish Arizona Rose had found an actor of Arab or North African heritage to play the role.  The actor did a fine job, but it felt like a missed opportunity to hire an actor of color.

This whole scenario begs the question—how do companies deal with playwrights whose prejudices reflect their time? Do we refuse to produce their works? Do we edit their works to reflect more progressive values? Do we produce them fully to remind our audiences that these ugly prejudices are a real part of our history? Shakespeare is racist too, remember. How do we deal? I don’t have an answer, and if I did, it would probably change from production to production, story to story, but I think the most important things are discussions within the company, among the cast and creative team, and with audiences—and an earnest attempt to get it right.

While I hope for more sensitivity regarding depictions of race in the future, I enjoyed this production, and I appreciate Arizona Rose Theatre’s mission to produce works that are positive and accessible. The company did a fine job of staging a murder mystery, and I’m looking forward to returning to see other productions.

Murder on the Nile runs through June 16th at Arizona Rose Theatre located in the Tucson Mall on the lower level near Macy’s. Tickets can be purchased by calling (520) 888-0509 or visiting www.arizonarosetheatre.com.