ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, Drury Lane Oakbrook. Joseph Kesselring’s 1941 comedy progressively hikes the hilarity as beleaguered drama critic Mortimer Brewster discovers that his beloved Brooklyn aunts are serial mercy killers who’ve hidden 12 bodies in the basement, one brother thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt excavating the Panama Canal, and the other is a sadistic torturer. Now Mortimer, who’s about to marry a pastor’s daughter, must conceal two corpses from the cops and convince himself he’s not as crazy as his relations–and all of this, mind you, 25 years before Joe Orton reinvented the gallows farce.
Honoring the screwball-comedy tradition of Kaufman and Hart, Kesselring exalts American eccentricity, and Ray Frewen’s revival never shortchanges the dotty characters. But the too careful physical comedy fails to achieve escape velocity. These tenacious performances deliver too few surprises, and if the actors are having fun, they’re not showing it.
The problem peaks with Kevin Fox as Mortimer: he substitutes confusion (not funny) for panic (funny) and pounces on lines instead of the feelings behind them. As the amiable sisters, Renee Matthews and Ann Whitney dither well, but the torpid pacing forces us to leap ahead of the action. Giving their all, Lydia Berger as Mortimer’s bewildered fiancee and Ron Keaton as the self-described Rough Rider suggest what might have been. Kurt Sharp’s flat, ordinary set isn’t nearly peculiar enough, and it’s lit by Joel Moritz with all the flair of a light switch flicking on and off.