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Just Killing It

The Old Saw About Spinsters Sending Men To The Big Sleep Still Packs A Kooky, Screwball Punch

SHALLOW, GRAVE: Tana Hicken (left) and Pamela Payton Wright cuddle Ian Kahn.

By John Barry | Posted 9/26/2007

Arsenic and Old Lace

By Joseph Kesselring

At Center Stage through Oct. 14

As theater hack Mortimer Brewster acknowledges in this comedy, there are times in a critic’s life when he feels he’d be more useful on the real estate beat. Arsenic and Old Lace might qualify as one of those moments. It’s a crowd-pleasing standard, full of cleverly crafted 1940s-era zaniness. After the requisite slow start, the wheels of the plot start to turn of their own accord. The second act is a joy to behold as people shuffle out and memorable characters pop out of the grave and elsewhere. For a critic, there isn’t much to say without spoiling the fun. So here goes:

The conceit itself, bearing the marks of old-school Broadway humor, is a slightly creaky blast from the past. Two old women--played by Pamela Payton Wright and local grande dame Tana Hicken--give the play its signature twist. They’re spinsters who run a sort of bed and breakfast from hell. They lure unsuspecting, lonely men into their place for the night and wind up burying them in the cellar. The joke inevitably gets stale. They’re unremittingly genteel and affable, even as the bodies keep piling up and the arsenic-laced elderberry wine keeps flowing. Though there’s not much to work with, Hicken and Wright’s performances bring a low-key comedic charm.

They live with a trumpet-blasting nephew, Teddy, who, in addition to helping them bury their victims, labors under the illusion that he’s Teddy Roosevelt. John Ahlin takes on the role with boisterous good humor; but again, as with the aunts, the joke wears quickly. (Disclosure: This reviewer has seen three plays in the last year, all in Baltimore, with Teddy Roosevelt imitations. They have begun to blur.)

The play’s love interest is provided by Mortimer Brewster (Ian Kahn) and Elaine Harper (Brynn O’Malley). Brewster is planning on marrying his aunt’s attractive next-door neighbor, but as the eccentricities in his aunts and brother pile up, he begins to wonder if there’s a streak of insanity in his genes. Kahn’s performance as a romantic lead is commanding, but as a witness to his aunts’ lunacy, he’s sometimes overwrought. Maybe it’s an indication that in this deadpan era Arsenic playwright Joseph Kesselring’s sense of humor has aged. Back then, the straight man was expected to stand around gaping in amazement at the insanity around him. Mortimer and Harper make a good pair, however, and O’Malley brings an appealing toughness to their chemistry.

The proliferation of one-dimensional characters surrounding this couple isn’t going to win anyone any acting awards, but the plot’s gradually accelerating pace is a lesson in fine-tuned comedy writing. In that, we may see the hands of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, the pair of Broadway producers who polished Kesselring’s script into the hit it still is today. Teddy blows his horn and digs what he imagines is the Panama Canal, Mortimer offers his hand in marriage, and the aunts bury their dead. By early in the second act, the play is going full-tilt. Mortimer’s long-lost brother Jonathon (John Campion) has entered the picture, along with his sidekick Einstein (Carson Elrod).

This comic duo makes the play memorable. As Dr. Einstein, Elrod gives a well-rounded performance as a sleazy, self-satisfied, alcoholic, incompetent Austrian facial surgeon. Along with his bizarre accent, Elrod’s loose-limbed physical act helps transform this drawing-room comedy into a vaudeville romp. As Jonathan, meanwhile, John Campion plays Mortimer’s black-sheep older brother with a leering, genuinely malicious energy. Campion’s brawling, menacing figure, with a huge graying pompadour, is a perfect match to Elrod’s reptilian, slippery character.

The play gets its final boost with three bumbling Brooklyn police officers who cap the play with an energetic variation on the Keystone Cops. O’Hara (Lou Liberatore), Klein (William Zielinski), and Lt. Rooney (Craig Bockhom) rush in and out of the Brewster house in pursuit of cake or escapees from the federal penitentiary.

To add a twist, director Irene Lewis and scenic designer Tony Straiges spice up the traditional set with decorative touches that appear to be inspired by the advent of Halloween. They included a mini-graveyard beneath the stage and a curtain call of past victims that threw the opening-night audience for a loop. But Lewis doesn’t interfere much with the play itself because, frankly, there’s not much to add. Arsenic and Old Lace, when left to its own devices, is an enjoyable evening. Even Mortimer Brewster, or any other grouchy, pretentious, underqualified theater critic who gets skewered in Kesselring’s script, would admit that.

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