Arsenic and Old Lace,by Joseph Kesselring. Directed by Gregg Edelman. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Mia Dillon as Martha, Timothy Gulan as Teddy, Harriet Harris as Abby; photo: Michael Sullivan
"There's a body in the window-seat" "Yes, dear, we know."
Graham Rowat as Mortimer; photo: Michael Sullivan
It's my favorite bit of dialogue since 1962. Mortimer Brewster discovers a dead man in his family home, where his two maiden aunts, Abby and Martha, live and his double-take is followed by this conversation. Mortimer is a theater critic in New York City and his aunts live with Mortimer's brother, Teddy, in the family manse in Brooklyn. Formerly its own city, Brooklyn is a place apart and though Mortimer loves his aunts and his loony brother Teddy he has not been a regular visitor until recently when he began to date Elaine Harper, the daughter of the minister next door.
Of course, when your aunts are actually Mia Dillon and Harriet Harris you might expect a few oddities in your life. Dillon's sweet, sweet, sweet Aunt Martha is such an inviting personality that an instant desire to visit her often grows in you immediately. She brings to Martha an overwhelming sense of calm. She is even-tempered and unruffled by circumstances until she is threatened with the loss of her dear nephew. Dillon wonderfully, or awe-fully, portrays Martha Brewster as the best of all possible guardians so when she relates the ardent philosophy of assisting lonely men in their final days you buy what she is selling without question.
Harriet Harris is her mirror-image double, the sister whose reactions can be guaged by the tone of her voice, the turn of her head and the fluttering of her hand. As subtle as she makes her Aunt Abby, she never manages to disguise her character's delight in her nefarious accomplishments, including the "little lies" she employs to protect her sister and herself. It is only when confronted with family competition that she allows her pride in her accomplishments to take over her demeanor. Her vocalization of this role is a triumph of talent over familiarity. Every line she utters is astonishingly new.
Graham Rowat and Katie Birenboim; photo: Emma Rothenberg-Ware
Mortimer Brewster is played here at the Berkshire Theatre Group's Fitzpatrick Main Stage in Stockbridge, MA by Graham Rowat whose comedy timing is superb. Unlike Cary Grant in the movie version of this play he is never bug-eyed, never over-the-top, never farcical in his style. Instead he brings us perfect sanity in a world turned upside-down. It is his intiguing reactions that give the comedy its source of laughter. Even the famous double-take called for in the script when Mortimer discovers a body that is key to his physical presentation here. He moves, he looks, he moves, he alters his expression, he moves again into a different place than the one he just left and he has only taken two steps. His love scenes with Katie Birenboim radiate passion and his interfacing with danger is obvious and hilarious. It is as though Dillon's Martha overtakes him internally even while Harris's Abby is pushing him onward.
His brother, Teddy, is played with vigor and humor by Timothy Gulan. Gulan is playing against type as Teddy and he pulls off the madness in the man's imagination with greater calm than gusto and it works. It works so very well, allowing him to be an active participant in the madness of the day while remaining a center for everyone's focus.
The third Brewster brother is Jonathan played by Matt Sullivan. His long face and darkened eye sockets do not give him enough of the look of Boris Karloff to qualify the constant comparison, nor is he as sinister a presence as Jonathan requires. Even so he delivers a creditable performance, especially when he moves from nice to naughty and physically takes on the famous monster's extended arms and staggering gait.
His traveling companion, Dr. Einstein, is played very nicely by Tom Story who brings charm into the mix. Story almost exudes personality in his counterpoint to Sullivan's austere Jonathan. They make a fine pair of villains.
Mia Dillon, Harriet Harris, Walton Wilson; photo: Michael Sullivan
The large cast of characters include four policemen, one minister, one asylum administer and one lonely old man. There was not one wrong note struck by any of them for which they deserve the hearty applause they each got on opening night from an audience that had laughed themselves silly. Ryan Chittaphong was the eager and appreciative Officer Klein. Gerry McIntyre was fine as Officer O'Hara. Michael Sullivan was hilarious as Officer Brophy, playwright-in-the-making. Walton Wilson was deliciously gruff as Lieutenant Rooney and also was sweetly dim as Reverend Harper. Walter Hudson played Mr. Gibbs, and later Mr. Witherspoon from Happy Dale, with all the minor detailing the two men deserve.
Hunter Kaczorowski has designed ideal costumes for these characters and Alan Edwards has given the show light and dark that remove the remoteness of a large setting and illuminate the moments perfectly. Scott Killian's sound design is like a dream - the perfect moments are made ideal moments with his scoring and his effects.
On a perfect set designed by Randall Parsons, director Gregg Edelman has staged this play for every bit of sanity in it and the results are easy fun and realistic amusement. He has given back to the play a sincerity that was lost in Frank Capra's desperately nutty film version, the only version most people today know. Edelman opens up the dialogue about this play's instant success and its loss to the professional theater (the play is most often seen in High Schools now). He and his company of players prove with this production that the play is undated, in spite of its Hitler references, and works for audiences as well in this century as it did more than seventy years ago. This is don't-miss theater!
Arsenic and Old Lace plays at the BTG Fitzpatrick Main Stage, 83 East Main Street, Stockbridge, MA thruogh August 19. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-997-4444 or go on line at BerkshireTheatreGroup.org.