Shubert Theatre

Serial murder, euthanasia, slasher psychopaths, bodies buried in a crawl space, face-lifts for people trying to change their images, the cyanide poisonings of innocent strangers–it’s a tabloid-rotten world we live in. Not like the good old days, when crime didn’t pay and virtue was its own reward.

Except that all these horrors are essential ingredients in 1941’s longest lasting comedy, Joseph Kesselring’s beloved chestnut, Arsenic and Old Lace. Despite the content, it all feels harmless–and probably did 46 years ago. To Kesselring’s audiences, vaguely aware of what Hitler was perpetrating abroad (the Brewster sisters priggishly mention the monster early in the first act), Arsenic’s dark humor must have seemed comparatively reassuring. After all, these two lethal but sincere maiden aunts were merely giving lonely old men an early release–and burying them with all the proper rituals. Besides, like other early 40s classics (Harvey and Miracle on 34th Street) in which fantasy is preferred to fact, the screwball humor deftly deflects any suggestion of a fatal reality. In this escapist 40s realm, crazy folks have it made–they forcibly reorganize the world to make sense, whereas to the sanest among us it never quite does.

As for 1987 audiences, what still works in Arsenic’s comic arsenal is just what Joe Orton rediscovered over 20 years later: corpses we don’t know can be hilarious.

All his reality principles fly out the window when Mortimer Brewster, persnickety theater reviewer (here aptly miscalled a “dramatic critic”), discovers that his sweet but dotty aunts have, without any second thoughts, quietly poisoned and buried in the cellar of their quaint old Brooklyn manse 12 people. The aunts have been assisted, unwittingly, in these mercy killings (they call them “charities”) by Mortimer’s crackbrained brother Teddy, who imagines he’s Theodore Roosevelt burying yellow fever victims in Panama. Mortimer catches on when he discovers one of the victims taking his eternal rest in the window seat. (Who says dead men tell no tales?)

Like the drama critics in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound, who get sucked from the security of their aisle seats into a plot that won’t stop thickening, harried Mortimer finds himself two steps behind the latest crisis. While furiously scheming to protect his fiancee Elaine–the girl (and minister’s daughter) next door–from uncovering the Brewster insanity (a contagion Mortimer is sure he’s carrying around), he suddenly confronts its worst extreme–the real evil of Jonathan Brewster, Mortimer’s thrill-killer brother. Jonathan’s face has been newly altered (by his plastic surgeon and accomplice, Dr. Einstein) to resemble Boris Karloff’s (whom the impressionable quack recently saw in a movie). Now Jonathan intends to set up his own make-over business in Brooklyn–with these “respectable” aunts as his cover.

Though the third act’s screwball contrivances ensure an accidentally happy ending, it’s only because–and here the play seems most dated– Arsenic relies so much more on plot than character. What character development there is is accomplished by playing each stereotype’s single note a little louder with every plot twist. In fact, stereotyping’s the basic technique behind this dependable if not overinspired touring production, which, fairly fresh from a seven-month run on Broadway, boasts a name-that-actor cast of TV and stage veterans.

At its best, Brian Murray’s staging successfully imposes a stylistic and period consistency upon some potentially discordant (and shtick-ridden) acting styles–but the cost is a somewhat glacial comic pace (particularly compared to the breakneck velocity of the 1944 film version). Though crafted and clean, this production still feels a tad too careful for comedy and makes Kesselring’s tricks more obvious than they should be. You get laughs, but they’re essentially isolated, depending too much on the efforts of individuals rather than on an ensemble who ruthlessly hammer the laugh volleys home by building on each other’s efforts.

But those separate star turns and individual efforts, starting with set designer Marjorie Bradley Kellogg’s sumptuous Brewster living room, can’t fail to impress. Jean Stapleton (who like her sister Maureen is endowed with a considerable acting range) has clearly decided not to make us forget Edith Bunker in her Abby Brewster. Still, her chirpy killer-spinster is a dithering dingbat delight, bubbling over with a scatterbrained indomitability as she offers the fatal elderberry wine to a hapless stranger (Paul Rosson in a hilarious cameo). Marion Ross (aka Mrs. Cunningham on Happy Days) offers a much blander Brewster sister; in her serviceable Martha, the spirit is willing but the quirks are weak. There should be more to Martha than just bustle.

As Mortimer, a theater critic who hates the theater, Gary Sandy (WKRP producer Andy Travis) has all the right (if sometimes harsh) reactions, but they don’t quite build to a comic boil. I know that playing the moment can work even with farce (as long as you don’t force it), but Sandy would go even further if he’d lighten up a little and ration his frenzies. The same applies to Mary Layne as Mortimer’s faithful fiancee; she’s clearly smarter than her part–and should try to hide that fact.

Whether charging up the (San Juan) staircase, blasting his bugle to announce a cabinet meeting, or eagerly embracing his future (because it’s already happened), MichaelJohn McGann as Teddy Brewster does a “bully” job indeed, as does Jonathan Frid (of Dark Shadows fame) playing the unspeakable Jonathan Brewster. (Frid’s classic style is perfect for this mirthless mutilator.) Finally, as Dr. Einstein, Larry Storch (Corporal Agarn of F Troop) avoids the usual Peter Lorre imitation to focus on simple nerdiness–and pulls off some of the evening’s best sight gags. The best one of all, however, is this show’s second curtain call. Easily getting the biggest laugh of the night, this brilliant device proves you can teach an old show new tricks.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Martha Swope.