Saturday, September 29, 2007

Arsenic and Old Lace

‘ARSENIC AND OLD LACE’ farces it up at Great Lakes Theater Festival

A major decision any director who is to stage ‘ARSENIC & OLD LACE’ must make is whether to present the material as a black comedy, letting the lines of the play develop the macabre humor and carry along the plot; or as a farce, in which exaggeration is used to heighten the hilarity; or as an enhanced farce, in which a lot of shticks and gimmicks enhance the already farcical situations and lines.

Drew Barr, the director of Great Lakes Theatre Festival’s ‘ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, has definitely decided to use the enhanced farce mode. There is nary a line or movement which does not scream, ‘Laugh at what I am doing, what I am saying.” This approach will probably delight most attendees as it makes for a funny, funny evening. Others may plead that the play can stand on its own and doesn’t need all that “unnecessary stuff” to make it joyful.

The script, a clever combination of the farcical and the ghoulish, centers on two elderly sisters. In their Brooklyn neighborhood they are noted for their charitable gifts and are beloved by the police and neighbors alike. What is unknown is that the “sweet” duo’s works of charity include poisoning lonely old men who come to their home looking for lodging. Their family home is also the residence of a nephew who thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt. They are often visited by another nephew, Mortimer, a theatre critic who eventually discovers that the aunts are hiding the corpses in the window seat until Teddy can take the “yellow fever” victims to be buried in the Panama Canal (graves dug in the basement.) A third nephew, who has a resemblance to Boris Karloff, appears after having escaped from a mental institution. What eventually happens? I’m not telling. All I can say is that the ending is obvious, but never the less a laugh delight!

Originally written by Joseph Kesselring, the script was adapted for its New York production by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse. Interestingly, when Kesselring taught at Bethel College, he lived in a boarding house, and many of the features of its parlor are reflected in the play’s description of the Brewster’s living room, where the action of the play is set. The murderous old lady plot line may have been inspired by events that occurred in a house in Windsor, CT where an older woman took in boarders and allegedly poisoned them for their pensions.

The play opened its New York run in January of 1941. Its form was perfect for the mood of the time. Playgoers were looking for some entertainment to take their minds off the war in Europe and the growing fear that America would be pulled into it. The production became an immediate critical and popular success, running for 1,444 performances. In 1944, Hollywood released a film version directed by Frank Capra, which stared Cary Grant. The film was a box office success.

The GLTF production goes all out for laughs, and laughs it gets. The performers bump into doorways, trip over sofas, chase each other around like the Keystone Cops, and showcase over-exaggerated gestures and facial expressions. The overall effect is exhausting, and depending on your sense of humor and love of slapstick, either delightful or overdone.

This interpretation is perfect for mobile faced, double-take expert Andrew May. He is hysterical as Mortimer, the theatre-hating reviewer who appears to be the only member of the Brewster family who has any semblance of sanity. If you like May as an off-the-wall character, you’ll love his performance.

Lynn Allison makes for a sweet Abby Brewster. She plays the part more for realistic comedy than for farce. On the other hand, Laura Perrotta, sounding and looking like the late-Judy Holliday on hallucinogenic drugs with a stiff neck, is way over the top. She is an excellent actress who didn’t need to overdo everything to get laughs.

David Anthony Smith is perfect as Teddy. He not only looks the part, but sounds like Roosevelt. Dougfred Miller is properly evil as psychopathic Jonathan. Most of the rest of the cast follows the director’s lead and are over the top.

Russell Metheny’s set is excellent, as are Charlotte Yetman’s costumes.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘ARSENIC AND OLD LACE’ isn’t a message play. It is a device to entertain the audience, and entertain the GLTF production does. One wonders, however, if the same enjoyment could have been engendered with a little more restraint.