Joseph Kesselring’s 1939 black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace ran for 1,444 performances on Broadway. Even better known was the 1944 film adaptation starring Cary Grant. The production now appearing at Colonial Players nods to both, with director David Carter cleverly balancing the look of an old black-and-white movie with the impact of live, and in this case hilarious,
Because the show has been a staple at professional, community and school theaters since the 1940s, the plot is well known enough that there should be no need for a spoiler alert; it’d be like talking about Romeo and Juliet without mentioning who dies. However, if you aren’t familiar with the doings of the Brewster family, spoiler alert:
Abby and Martha Brewster rent rooms to older men, most of whom have no families. To put them out of their lonely misery, the sisters have taken to poisoning their guests with a concoction of elderberry wine, arsenic, strychnine and a pinch of cyanide. Add those ingredients together and the result is a dozen dead bodies and a lot of laughs. The sisters allow their nephew Teddy, who sincerely believes that he is Teddy Roosevelt, to bury the bodies in the cellar. Teddy, you see, thinks the gentlemen are victims of yellow fever who died during the digging of the Panama Canal, which he is building in the basement.
When another nephew, Mortimer, discovers one of the bodies in a window seat, he assumes that crazy Teddy is guilty, until his aunts calmly, proudly and hilariously explain to him that it was their doing. The deep, gut-punch laughs are inversely proportional to the calm, straightforward explanations offered by Bernadette Arvidson as Abby and Mary Suib as Martha. They are so sweet, demure and sincere that they talk about the dozen dead bodies in the cellar as if they were describing a moth on the wall.
The response of Dann Alagna’s Mortimer as his aunts wonder what all the fuss is about is just as hilarious. Alagna’s physical animation would be too much in another context, but is the perfect counter to Arvidson and Suib’s confident complacency.
Speaking of animation, John Halmi pulls off what few actors can with such an over-the-top role: making us believe that Teddy is real. Comedy must be rooted in reality, and Halmi’s Teddy is so funny because Halmi infuses him with consistent sincerity.
The plot thickens as the third nephew, Jonathan, arrives. Jonathan is an on-the-run gangster whose most recent plastic surgery, intended to conceal his identity, makes him look like Boris Karloff. It’s a clever in-joke in the original play since Boris Karloff played Jonathan. Brooks Schandelmeier may not be the mirror image of Karloff, but it’s close enough in context, and his size and menacing nature make it all work. Schandelmeier and Steve Tobin as Jonathan’s bumbling alcoholic partner Doctor Einstein are a terrific comedic pair. The rest of the cast are uniformly excellent.
Director Carter does a nice job keeping almost all of the action in the middle of Colonial’s in-the-round space, a task made easier by designer Eric Hufford’s superior set. The Victorian furniture and the layout of the house, not to mention the overall use of blacks, whites and grays, lend themselves perfectly to Carter’s vision of a black-and-white film. Even the theater’s side walls get into the act, nicely painted in a wallpaper motif by Amy Atha-Nicholls, complete with a landscape that includes a cemetery. Costumes by Drea Lynn and hair and makeup by Pam Peach also help place us squarely in the 1940s, as do David Cooper’s sound design and Ernie Morton and Paul Webster’s lights.
There were a few obvious opening night line drops, the unfortunate use of modern air quotes (in 1944? They were around but didn’t become popular until the 1990s) by one cast member. The ending seemed to slow to a crawl just when it should have barreled to a finale. But things like this tend to iron themselves out after opening weekend. They didn’t detract from the fun.
In short, Carter and his charges have a hit on their hands; Colonial Players’ Arsenic and Old Lace is cleverly staged and well-acted. Add those ingredients together and the result is a killer comedy.
About two and a half hours with one intermission. Playing ThFSa 8pm, Su 2pm, thru Oct. 5, Annapolis, $23 w/discounts, rsvp: www.tickets.thecolonialplayers.org.