"Arsenic and Old Lace" has earned a lasting place as one of the best works of Hollywood's Golden Age.
It would be hard to find someone who has not seen "Arsenic and Old Lace," the Broadway play by Joseph Kesselring adapted into a hit movie in 1944. Full of dark humor and surprise turns, it has earned a lasting place as one of the best works of Hollywood's Golden Age.
Despite the play’s familiarity, The Old Academy Players make it seem fresh as ever in their current revival. A large cast of actors attacks its iconic roles with such comic zeal it almost does not matter that you know how it will all turn out.
Before the show begins, director Loretta Lucy Miller tells you a few things you may not know. Legendary Broadway producers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse were involved in the rewrite, convincing Kesselring to reimagine his play as a dark comedy. They may have created the play's title as well.
Further, "Arsenic" is rooted in a true story. Amy Archer-Gillian ran the "Archer Home for Elderly People and Chronic Invalids" in Connecticut. During the years 1908-1916, sixty-five people died under her "care," including Amy's two husbands. Convicted of murder via arsenic and strychnine, Archer-Gillian died at age 89.
Two Old Academy veterans star as the Brewster sisters. Linda Palmarozza plays Abby, twinkle-eyed and gracious to everyone. Sister Martha, played by Terri Fries Bateman, soon joins her. These two are charming as they patter about the Brewster home, always at the point of completing each other's thoughts with their talk.
Old Academy put a lot of care into the production. A small army of volunteers helps out in the set construction and decoration to create an atmospheric sitting room parlor. (Stagecrafters Theater helped with props). Creative use of doors and windows makes you feel as if you are inside a large Victorian house.
That is fortunate because Teddy Brewster needs lots of room. Veteran NYC actor Jonathan Lovett shines as the delusional uncle, blasting his bugle and shouting “Charge!" as President Roosevelt. Teddy signs secret agreements in the upstairs chambers and then scurries down to bury victims of yellow fever in the imaginary locks of the Panama Canal, located in the cellar.
There are the "good guys" in "Arsenic." Ben Kunkle plays Mortimer Brewster, the sister's nephew and a Broadway theater critic." When Mortimer learns he is living in a house of horrors, Kunkle excels in showing the nuances of Mortimer's comic distress. Marisa Block plays his fiancee Elaine as a wanting woman of great emotional strength.
Then there are the "bad guys." Harley Diamond has lots of fun playing long-lost brother Jonathan, a cartoonish Boris Karloff figure who rejoices in doing evil. John Pinto's Dr. Einstein is his Peter Lorre side-kick, a plastic surgeon who needs liquor to fortify his will.
Satirical lampooning of America gives "Arsenic" its special charm. The Brewster sisters are stalwart Presbyterians. At the same time, there are bodies buried in the basement of this moral America. Reverend Harper (Steve J. Peitzman) is only worried that his daughter Elaine is staying out late, taking up with a man involved in the sensual evils of the theater. He does not seem to notice Elaine's erotic side (She hints that she learned a lot in "the choir loft").
The custodians of social order are unerringly blockheads. Officers Brophy (James Hearn) and Klein (Taylor Whitehead) are innocents in a world full of evil. By contrast, the worldly cynicism of Lieutenant Rooney (Randy Shupp) is funny because he gets everything exactly wrong. The administrator of the asylum, Mr. Witherspoon (David Moyer), is just a lamb for slaughter.
Finally, when it comes to the arts, Officer O'Hara (Rich Geller) is a frustrated playwright who wants Mortimer's help writing a plot still more preposterous than the one you are watching. Mortimer sometimes writes a theater review before he sees the play, (that's going too far, Kesselring!). But you are so caught up in the zany, comic terror of "Arsenic" you scarcely notice.
Old Academy Players is located at 3544 Indian Queen Lane. "Arsenic and Old Lace" will run through June 25. Tickets at 215-843-1109 or www.oldacademyplayers.org