Arsenic and Old Lace

(Left to right) Celeste Williams, Eric Gerard and TayLar in Court Theatre's production of “Arsenic and Old Lace.”

 

If you think a black comedy that premiered on Broadway in 1941 isn't likely to appeal to audiences eight decades years later, think again. Court Theatre's production of Joseph Kesselring's “Arsenic and Old Lace” is as fresh and funny as if it were written yesterday and, on opening night earlier this month, it played to a packed and appreciative crowd.

Credit goes to director Ron OJ Parson and his outstanding cast. They manage a mix of mirth and the macabre that resonates in these uncertain times and revitalizes an old chestnut.

The key to the hilarity is incongruity. Set during World War II, the play takes place in the Brooklyn mansion of the Brewster sisters, Abby (TayLar) and Martha (Celeste Williams). Beloved in their community, they are delightful elderly ladies—here more like middle-aged—except for the fact that they've used their homemade elderberry wine to poison a dozen lonely old gentlemen who've come looking to rent a room. (The old bachelors end up buried in the basement.) The sisters don't feel guilty at all; In fact, they believe they are doing charity work. Each man gets a funeral service and flowers on his grave every Sunday.

The person doing the burying is the sisters' dotty nephew Teddy Brewster (Allen D. Edge), who believes he's Theodore Roosevelt. He thinks he's digging the Panama Canal in the basement and that the men died of yellow fever. He also regularly charges up the steps calling them San Juan Hill and blowing his bugle at top volume.

When another nephew, Mortimer Brewster (Eric Gerard), visits his aunts and learns what's going on, he's aghast. A theater critic who hates the theater (and preferred his previous gig in real estate), he's initially there to take his fiancé, Elaine Harper (Emma Jo Boyden), who lives next door, to see a show. But after he discovers a dead body in the window seat, Mortimer repeatedly tries to send her home over her vigorous objections.

The plot thickens with the unexpected late-night arrival of a third Brewster brother, the murderous Jonathan (A.C. Smith). He's killed a man for saying he looked like Boris Karloff (who originally played the role on stage) and has brought the body along. Also accompanying him is Dr. Einstein (Guy Van Swearingen)—not that Dr. Einstein, but rather the plastic surgeon responsible for Jonathan's appearance. He's promised to fix his mistake, and the pair plan to take over the aunts' house, turn the dead Brewster patriarch's lab into an operating room and bury their dead body in the basement.

Abby and Martha are having none of it, though they do their best to be polite. Mortimer wants Teddy committed and Jonathan gone. His goal is to protect his aunts, even if they are oblivious to the fact that they've done anything wrong.

Parson's directorial twist is to make all the Brewsters Black, while the Rev. Harper and the various policemen who visit the home—Thomas J. Cox, Norm Boucher, Matthew Lunt—are, with the exception of Lt. Rooney (Allen Gilmore), white. This departure from color-blind casting works quite well and reminds us that there were affluent Black families living in Brooklyn at the time, even if attitudes about interracial marriage weren't as casual as depicted here.

Not surprisingly, the dialogue is full of inside jokes, particularly about the theater. There also are references to celebrities people may not remember today, for example, when Mortimer tells his aunts, black-clad with veils, that they look like 20th century stage actress Judith Anderson.

Those details don't matter much, though, because the actors' timing is impeccable, and their interaction is a hoot. Williams' fluttery, overly excited Martha and TayLar's calmer, practical Abby play off each other beautifully. Gerard's anxiety as Mortimer comes out as intense physical comedy (though a bit too manic at times). Hulking Smith with his deep resonant voice and diminutive Van Swearingen remind me of cartoon characters Mutt and Jeff, and Parson has given them some bits that reinforce the comparison. Although a few farcical scenes go on too long for my taste, that's a quibble.

John Culbert's scenic design is so stunning I was ready to move right in. Jared Gooding's lighting, Sarah Ramos' sound and Rachel Anne Healy's costumes are equally good.

Watching “Arsenic and Old Lace” at Court, I realized that, although I was familiar with the 1944 film, I'd never seen the play before. It was definitely a winner.

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