ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, Backstage Theatre Company, at North Lakeside Cultural Center. Ingeniously played in the Berger mansion, a 1910 lakeside villa, this revival of Joseph Kesselring’s delightful 1941 comedy of murder and insanity places audiences in the thick of the mayhem. Most seats here command views of the mansion’s entry hall, drawing room, and dining room, each meticulously furnished with the dotty Brewster aunts’ period-perfect bric-a-brac. One wonders what Sheridan Road motorists think when the actors pass a body through the front window.
Bustling around the head-swiveling audience, the dozen actors in this inaugural staging, directed by Matthew Kerns and Melissa Young, seem authentic in their deceptively demure setting. The pace still isn’t frenetic enough for farce, but there’s deft comedy, especially in their macabre creations. Though Chris Genebach as the evil Jonathan and James Foster as Jonathan’s henchman Dr. Einstein look more like Nixon and Hitler than Karloff and Lorre, they comically convey Jonathan’s splenetic menace and Dr. Einstein’s festering obsequiousness. As the cracked old ladies whose euthanasia campaign anticipated “Dr. Death” by 40 years, Janette Benton and Amy Monday are too young, but their clever stage business does suggest pixilated eccentricity (Monday overworks the spinster mannerisms, however).
Measuring the stage madness by his manic reactions, nephew and drama critic Mortimer Brewster matters most, surrounded by a real-life plot that’s up close and painful. Scott Aiello is more convincing in the role than Kevin Fox was in Drury Lane Oakbrook’s recent revival, bringing a contagious panic to Mortimer’s multiplying miseries.