Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring. Directed by Ed. Lange.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Constantly exposed to the theatre."
Chestnuts can be sweet. They are usually meaty and firm and satisfying. The 1941 comedy, "Arsenic and Old Lace" is just such a chestnut and in its current incarnation in Troy, New York on the Schacht stage where the New York State Theatre Institute (NYSTI) is presenting the play, it is available out of season. One of the most often presented plays, from high school to summer stock productions, it is rarely given such a full-blown professional treatment as it is getting in Troy. Featuring many of NYSTIís resident actors in plum roles the evening pleases, teases and amuses with its benign melodrama and its in-joke comedy.
This is the story of a reluctant theater critic, Mortimer Brewster, whose maiden aunts poison lonely old men to relieve them of their miseries and give them a good Christian burial, each according to his own religious persuasion. The aunts, Abby and Martha (a not-so-in-joke - think Adams and Washington), share their historic Brooklyn house with their nephew Teddy (who believes himself to be Theodore Roosevelt - one more President to add to the characters) and are visited by a third nephew Jonathan, a serial killer whose best friend is Dr. Einstein (not the physicist). On the day and night in question, all the Brewster boys meet up for the first time in years and Mortimer is faced with the question of his own split-level sanity. I know it doesnít sound funny, but honestly, it is.
On a fascinating set designed by Victor A. Becker, the company of players bring the murderous mayhem to a high pitch by playing with honesty and integrity the characters as written. There is no outrageous mugging, no hammy overacting, no penchant for period nonsense. These are men who wear hats, even when they donít wear topcoats, women who dress for every occasion and neighbors who drop in unexpectedly when they think there may be a problem at a friendís house. The play is filled with characters who may not be normal but seem to fit in with their surroundings in a normal way. That is the particular joy of this play. No one seems implausible or improbable. The humor emerges from the reality and the reality is so very not normal.
Key to the natural playing are the two aunts. They must be played as the nicest people in any neighborhood and that is the quality achieved by Eileen Schuyler as Abby Brewster and Carole Edie Smith as Martha Brewster. Schuyler and Smith, individually in their scenes with others, but most particularly in their scenes together, play as naturally as children in a sandbox. It is easy to believe that these two have been together for more than sixty years. They look alike at times, they even sound alike. Their humanity in the face of insane behavior is perfectly right. They are the quiet twin centers in the chaos that reigns around them.
Jason Marr plays Mortimer. He gets most the theatrical in-jokes in the script and he tosses them off like raindrops on a baseball cap. For his character this is perfect. His playing of the madness that comes with unraveling the indecipherable is nothing short of brilliant. His romantic moments, and there are some, are less appealing, but that is partially in the writing. His triumphant realization of the basic truths of his own existence brought down the house on opening night.
As his brother Teddy, Joel Aroeste realized a fine approximation of the first President Roosevelt. Charging up the stairs, blowing his bugle, heading off to Panama or just theorizing on his relationships with famous men of the era, Aroeste took hold of the double dynamics of Teddy and made them work.
Jonathan, in the hands of John Romeo, is quite another story. Transformed in this playing edition from a grotesque Boris Karloff look-alike into an Orson Welles clone, many of his lines and the lines directed at him did not play as well as they should have. Other than that Romeo brought every ounce of menace and brotherly-resentment possible into the role and emerged a manic winner. This basically difficult re-write just wasnít the funny-bone tickler it was intended to be.
Mary Jane Hansen played Elaine Harper, the bride-to-be of Mortimer, with a period flair that was just right although her terror in the dangerous hands of Orson Welles didnít ring true. Michael Steese was a fine Mr. Witherspoon, a late entry into the madhouse. He did what he needed to do, including setting up the final laugh line of the show, which is a funny one.
David Bunce played Dr. Einstein with an inconsistent accent and a hilarious penchant for physical comedy that offset the verbal flux of his performance. Mort Hess had a nice cameo as a potential victim. John McGuire as Reverend Harper also had a fine scene at the start of the play and Joe Phillips had one at the end.
There are three policemen in the play, Officers Brophy, Klein and OíHara. Not played in as bumbling a fashion as Iíve seen in other productions, they are realistically portrayed by Brian Sheldon, David Gould and Eric Rose. Rose has the hardest of these roles, as OíHara, the potential playwright on the force who wants Mortimer to collaborate with him on the stage-story of his motherís life. He played it very well.
Costumes for this production are by Brent Griffin who managed the two visual periods of the play with style. Abby and Martha wear the garb of 1903 while everyone else is in contemporary clothing. Betsy Adams understands the needs of this set and has lit the production well. There is original music by Will Severin and it provides a spooky underscore that aids the atmosphere of the play while 100% Sound has brought in some sound effects that set up a nice in-joke that would make Mel Brooks proud.
Clearly director Ed. Lange knew what he was after with this Halloween delight. He has created more reality for the play than is usual, restrained his actors from their natural desire to go overboard where they could, and turned "Arsenic and Old Lace" back into the Broadway hit it was than into the boring, overplayed movie that it turned into when Cary Grant took it on.
This is a fine opening statement for NYSTI, starting their 32nd season in the capital district. Itís also, as you might have gathered by now, fun.
Eileen Schuyler and Carole Edie Smith; photo: Joe Schuyler
Jason Marr as Mortimer; photo: Joe Schuyler
David Bunce, Mary Jane Hansen, John Romeo; photo: Joe Schuyler
"Arsenic and Old Lace" plays at the Schacht Fine Arts Center, Russell Sage College, in Troy, New York through through October 24. It is recommended for all audiences age 11 and older. Prices range from $10 to $20. For full schedule and tickets contact the NYSTI box office at 518-274-3256 or go to their website at www.nysti.org.