Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, October 2007
Alas, poor Mortimer Brewster (Jason Marr). A recalcitrant theatre critic for a major New York newspaper, on the very night he has to go and review “Murder Will Out” he “outs” several murderers in his own extended family. Of course, as Mortimer says, insanity gallops in the Brewster family. One brother, Teddy (Joel Aroeste), believes he is President Theodore Roosevelt and the other, Jonathan (John Romeo), is proud of the fact that he has murdered 12 people during his rather successful life of crime, which has been extended by his partner Dr. Herman (not Albert) Einstein (David Bunce), a plastic surgeon who simply gives Jonathan a new face whenever the “Wanted” posters go up depicting his last visage. When we meet him he is looking rather like Orson Welles since Dr. Einstein had just seen him in a film and had rather too much to drink before performing the surgery.
The Brewster brothers’ parents are gone, but what a mercy they have their paternal maiden aunts, Abby (Eileen Schuyler) and Martha (Carole Edie Smith), who live a life of decency and kindness in the handsomely Victorian Brewster family home, located just across the graveyard from an Episcopal church in Brooklyn. In their proper Edwardian clothes, they take care of Teddy, have a cordial relationship with the local police department, and distribute their delicious home-made foodstuffs through out the neighborhood to the ill and downtrodden. Why, they even make their own elderberry wine.
As Officer Klein (David Gould) remarks to Officer Brophy (Brian Sheldon) as they stop by to pick up a box of toys for needy children, “…Try and stop [Abby] or her sister from doing something nice – and for nothing! They don’t even care how you vote!
As the curtain rises on Joseph Kesselring’s 1941 monster hit “Arsenic and Old Lace,”, Abby is entertaining the Rector, the Reverend Dr. Harper (John McGuire) at tea while Martha is out delivering soup to an ill neighbor. It seems that Mortimer, who has his own apartment in the city, has been seeing an awful lot of Dr. Harper’s only child, Elaine (Mary Jane Hansen), and things might be getting serious. While Mortimer seems quite accepting of an Episcopal priest as a father-in-law, Dr. Harper has definite reservations about having a theatre critic as a son-in-law.
“…a dramatic critic is constantly exposed to the theatre and I don’t doubt but what some of them do develop an interest in it,” he remarks.
But Abby assure him that, “Mortimer hates the theatre” and Dr. Harper’s fears are quelled. If only he knew that Teddy blowing his bugle at odd hours and digging the Panama Canal in the basement were some of the less alarming things going on in the Brewster home. If only he knew there were eleven bodies buried in the cellar and one in the window seat. And Jonathan, who hasn’t been home to Brooklyn in decades, knows nothing about them.
As you can see, theatre critics, the Episcopal clergy, the constabulary, and dear little old ladies don’t fare too well in this play.
Despite the fact that Kesselring is credited as the author of the play, it was the famous writing, acting, producing team of Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse who took his 1939 melodrama “Bodies in Our Cellar,” which Kesselring considered “…a very serious, chilling murder mystery,” and turned it into the perennially popular comedy that opened on Broadway in 1941. If you want proof, “Arsenic and Old Lace” is the only one of the twelve plays Kesselring wrote which was successful.
Even so, no one on the original production team was sure whether audiences would take to a comedy in which three of the characters are cold-blooded, unrepentant murderers. Sixty-six years, a few million stage productions internationally, and two film versions - the well known 1944 American film directed by Frank Capra and a Russian on - later it looks like their gamble paid off handsomely.
Productions of “Arsenic and Old Lace” are a dime a dozen, but NYSTI’s presentation, directed by the company’s now blissfully retired Associate Artistic Director Ed. Lange, is uniformly excellent and well worth seeing. In keeping with their mission to produce theatre for a family audience this is a great show to take children ages eight and up to, although the company recommends it for ages eleven and up.
The cast includes many NYSTI stalwarts. Schuyler and Smith are reprising their roles from a 1996 NYSTI production. In fact, the company has presented the play several times and in its first staging, about thirty years ago, Smith played the ingénue role of Elaine. But now in her maturity, she and Schulyer make the perfect team.
Another NYSTI veteran, Joel Aroeste, is also reprising his role as Teddy Brewster, with the intervening decade helping him look more like the 27th President. Whether he was storming San Juan Hill (climbing the stairs) or off with his pith helmet and shovel to dig the Canal, he is hilarious.
So is John Romeo as the fiendish Jonathan, even though his resemblance to Orson Welles is only passing. But Lange had to find a star of the 1930’s-1940’s for whom Romeo could pass because the script calls for it. In the original Broadway production Jonathan looked just like Boris Karloff, which was not surprising since he was played by Boris Karloff, and so the running gag that Jonathan gets furious whenever he is mistaken for a famous movie star is built in. Welles is a reasonable choice given Roman’s stature, but it makes no sense when people say that Jonathan’s current face is terrifying and that they remember it from a horror film. Welles may have been portly, but he was a handsome man who played more contemplative than scary film roles.
But the biggest comedy kudos go to Bunce. Even though it is hard to imagine anyone better than Peter Lorre who originated the role and reprised it on film, Bunce is. From his sadly baggy trousers to his whiney German accent (Kesselring was himself German so he knew both the accent and the fact that Germans were none too popular in 1941 exceedingly well) Bunce was the picture of craven cowardice,.and he was very, very funny.
Marr is not quite as handsome as Cary Grant and he was a little too over-the-top hysterical for my taste in some scenes, but overall he made a fine leading man and he made Mortimer’s relationship with Hansen’s Elaine playful and believable. Hansen looked great, especially in an Act II day dress made of a striking print expertly draped by costume designer Brent Griffin, who has done a masterful job of making everything from the sisters’ Victorian mourning dresses to Elaine’s hip ‘40’s fashions attractive and well-fitted.
I think the gag of having the PK (preacher’s kid) be wild and worldly wise has outlived its ability to make us laugh, but Hansen does her spunky best to portray the necking-in-the-choir-loft Elaine as an independent and forthright young woman.
The supporting cast of cops – in addition to the afore-mentioned Klein and Brophy we meet aspiring playwright Officer O’Hara (Eric Rose), whose mother Peaches Latour gave birth to him backstage at the end of Act II of “Mutt and Jeff” (and still made the finale), and Lieutenant Rooney (Joe Phillips) – all turn in solid performances, especially Rose who has more to do and does it well.
And narrowly escaping death are Mort Hess as potential boarder Mr. Gibbs, and Michael Steese as Mr. Witherspoon, administrator of Happy Dale Sanitarium, who is saved by the final curtain.
Victor A. Becker has designed an outstanding set for this production, prominently featuring dozens of portraits, large and small, of Brewster ancestors all over the three story set. It is appropriately dark and cluttered in the Victorian style, and ably supports the actions with doors to kitchen, bedrooms, basement, and the outside world, and that infamous window seat, all set at interesting angles.
The lighting design by Betsy Adams, and sound design by 100% Sound is evocative and effective. Will Severin’s original underscoring is so appropriate and subtle that it blends perfectly into the action of the play, as if it had always been there.
The New York State Theatre Institute presentation of Arsenic and Old Lace runs through October 24 at the Schacht Fine Arts Center on the campus of Russell Sage College, off of Division St. between Front and First Streets in Troy, New York. The show runs two hours and forty-five minutes with two intermissions. As is always the case with a NYSTI production, this show is intended as educational theatre and is recommended for children 11 and up. Call the box office at 518-274-3256 between 9-4 p.m. for tickets and information. (If you are calling within the hour before show time the box office number is 518-244-6888.)
For more information on this production I recommend picking up or clicking through to the NYSTI Study Guide (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader).
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007