Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Arsenic and Old Lace
Serial killers and a maniac on the loose are characters you'd find in many tv thrillers and horror films. But when the murderers are two sweet, adoring spinster sisters and you add in their wacky family members and a series of bumbling cops you get the classic black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace, which is currently receiving a charming production at Hale Centre Theatre. The 1941 play, a delightful period piece filled with plenty of laughs and a dose or two of intrigue, does creak a bit around the edges due to the silly situations and simplistic and daft characters. However, it still results in a fun, appealing romp due to playwright Joseph Kesselring's inventive plot that uses the eccentric characters and comical situations to an advantage with plenty of twists and turns along the way.
Set in 1941 Brooklyn in the home of eccentric sisters Abby and Martha Brewster who have taken it upon themselves to help out their lonely, old gentlemen boarders by murdering them with a lethal concoction of elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine, and "just a pinch" of cyanide. Their gentle but crazy nephew Teddy, who believes he is President Roosevelt, lives with them. Their other nephew Mortimer, who is a drama critic, has just asked his girlfriend Elaine to marry him when he discovers his aunts' latest victim stuffed in the window box. Mortimer's discovery sets the plot in motion as he attempts to figure a way out of his predicament. But it only gets worse. First Mortimer finds out his aunts have previously killed several other boarders and then his other brother, the not so sweet, homicidal killer Jonathan, shows up at the house with his accomplice Dr. Einstein with another dead body of their own to hide.
Director Kent Burnham has assembled a fairly terrific ensemble cast that manages to portray these broad, eccentric characters with ease. Laura Soldan and Barbara McGrath make Abby and Martha the type of sweet, doting aunt anyone would welcome into their family. When they tell Mortimer about their mercy killings they present it in such a matter of fact way that it elicits laughs. McGrath's steadier Martha is a nice balance to Soldan's flighty, and almost constantly moving Abby. As Mortimer, Drew Leatham's facial expressions and body language when he hears the truth from his aunts are appropriately comical. While he thinks he's the only sane one in the family he is concerned he will eventually become crazy as well and his realization of that possibility as well as his frantic actions when things start to spin out of control are delightful.
With scars on his face, a deep booming voice and a sense of danger in his slow, measured line delivery, James Olsen brings the "disagreeable" Johnny delightfully to life in a menacing way and James Melita is just about perfect as the confused Teddy. Jeff Brown uses a thick German accent in his portrayal of Dr. Einstein to give him a sense of mystery but also adds a sweet disposition that is an effective counterpoint to his evil scientist persona. In the supporting cast, Emily Batterson has a nice touch of feistiness in her performance of Mortimer's fiancé; Ammon Opie as Officer O'Hare, the cop who wants to be a playwright has a sunny disposition and sweetness in his portrayal and Darryl W. Poenisch brings a nice sense of doubting authority as the Police Lieutenant.
With the exception of a strange tango dance that Dr. Einstein performs with the dead body he and Jonathan bring into the house, which is a bit of a misfire since it doesn't quite fit with the character or the moment, Burnham elicits a fast yet loving pace and assured performances from his cast. He also stages the action throughout the theatre in the round space most effectively. I'm sure that black comedies must be difficult to direct, ensuring that the performances never get too broad or too serious, and Burnham shows his capable skills with this production.
Creative elements are period perfect from David Dietlein and Brian Daily's set design, strewn with plenty of 1940's and antique furniture and accessories to Mary Atkinson's character appropriate costumes. Her even older style dresses for the aunties, including their lace strewn black funeral attire, are a perfect, comical touch and show how the aunts haven't quite caught up to modern times. Jeff A. Davis' lighting design is excellent, with a lovely effect of light streaming through the long front door windows as well as the many scenes set at night in the dark lit perfectly so none of the action is missed.
For a play that is over seventy years old Arsenic and Old Lace still elicits plenty of laughs and charm if done right, and the Hale Centre Theatre's production has a capable cast and sure footed direction that incite enough chuckles and warmth amongst the silliness to show why this play has been a favorite for so many years.
The Hale Centre Theatre production of Arsenic and Old Lace runs through November 18th, 2014 with performances at 50 W. Page Avenue in Gilbert. Tickets can be ordered at https://www.haletheatrearizona.com or by calling (480) 497-1181
Written by Joseph Kesselring