Many a theater major, high school or college, has done their time in a production of “Arsenic and Old Lace,” that ol’ farce about the Brewsters, the “family that slays together, and therefore stays together.” The ghosts of Cary Grant and Peter Lorre hover over the play, despite the two stars only appearing in the film version, even seven decades later. (Blame Turner Classic Movies.) It hurtles along at a brisk pace, indulges in some black but not bleak humor, and still has some clever twists in it.
On the last weekend of its run at SBCC’s Garvin Theater, Katie Laris’ production of Joseph Kesselring’s play still manages to get some mileage out of this jalopy.
These Brewsters indeed have millions, which they inherited from their grandfather who sounds a bit Mengele-like. Regardless, it’s left the two batty Brewster aunts, Abby (Leslie Ann Story) and Martha (Linda MacNeal) with a wonky amorality and a sweet little hobby of poisoning lonely old men who come to check out their (always empty) room for rent. Into this wanders their good-natured nephew, Mortimer (Jay Carlander), who is courting the entirely normal Elaine (Out of the Box Company director Samantha Eve), the daughter of the local reverend (Tim Whitcomb). Little does he know at first of his aunt’s predilection for murder, but when he does, he tries his best to figure out a way to pin it on his insane older brother Teddy (Christopher Lee Short), who thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt and is helping dig the Panama Canal in the basement. (This just happens to help the aunts dispose of their victim’s bodies). And then into this mix steals the evil brother Jonathan (John Leo Brindle) and his accomplice/plastic surgeon Dr. Einstein (Ed Lee). The brother, see, leads a life of “real” crime and has changed his face several times to evade capture, and currently has a thick Frankenstein monster forehead and wild rolling eyes.
The latter character presents one of the problems of the aging text. In the original Broadway production of 1941, horror movie star Boris Karloff played the Jonathan character, and Joseph Kesselring’s play is loaded with elbow nudge jokes about how Jonathan’s awful plastic surgery makes him look like Boris Karloff. Boffo referential humor for 1941, but this arrives in 2014 DOA, and the play repeats the joke over and over.
Similarly, Elaine’s character suffers from underwriting and not a little amount of sexism, a pretty thing to be pushed and pulled by Mortimer, who runs hot and cold, trying to keep her away from his family’s secret by shunting her out the door over and over. She has very little agency, apart from her need to hurry up and get married in order to jump to the consummation. Samantha Eve gamely tries her best, by the way.
On the other hand, the play is at its best, and still sparks, when it scatters all the jigsaw pieces and puts them back in an order we didn’t suspect. We get two corpses for the price of one, poison cups, a clueless Irish cop (Edward K. Romine), jokes about theater critics that I don’t take personally (really!), and some wacky physical comedy.
Jay Carlander is more gangly than Cary Grant, and dominates the proceedings by size alone, birdlike as he is in movement, and swallowing his own words as he speaks them. Mr. Brindle rolls his eyes and sinks his teeth into his villain character and gets some choice lines. The murderous sisters are best when playing it oblivious, which they do, and Ms. Story and Ms. MacNeal enjoy creating a symbiotic relationship. And then there’s Mr. Lee, who’s always a pleasure to watch, with his impeccable comic timing and turns of phrasing, making all his garbled faux-German hilarious. SBCC’s Theater Group manages to keep some of our best local actors employed, and it’s always a treat to see them. The set by Patricia L. Frank is crammed with fun detail, too.
“Arsenic” is a play that creaks and moans in its old age, but like a favorite chair, it still provides comfort for many.