ARSENIC AND OLD LACE at the Odyssey
I’m sure it was long before 1941 when the term “madcap comedy” was coined, but perhaps at no time in 20th-century theatrical history was there a better choice for that tag then when it was attached to Joseph Kesselring’s enduring old warhorse Arsenic and Old Lace.
Based on the infamous real-life case of Connecticut landlady Amy Archer-Gilligan, who took elderly and chronically ill boarders into her home and poisoned them for their pensions, the delightfully dotty yet murderous Brewster sisters and their certifiable family members took New York by storm in those dark days when another atrociously evil fascist monster was busy screwing up the world and ran for a record 1,400-plus performances.
Despite many topical references that only old-timers like me might get—and even then only by reference, not from actually being there at the time, thank you—Arsenic and Old Lace simply never gets old. There may be lines about the sisters’ world being a little like Strindberg writing Hellzapoppin’ or their evil nephew telling his aunties to get out of their period mourning dresses because they look like Judith Anderson, but still younger audiences will be equally charmed and entertained by one of the silliest farces of all time.
As directed with a huge dose of suitably Marx Brothers-esque humor by Elina de Santos, the Odyssey has portioned out a healthy dose of Arsenic with consummate skill. On a jaw-droppingly detailed two-story set by Bruce Goodrich, complete with the perfect staircase for the sisters’ deluded nephew Teddy (in a wonderfully wacky turn by Alex Elliott-Funk) to scale as he repeatedly charges up San Juan Hill, this is perhaps the most engagingly reverent mounting of a true American classic to hit LA stages in quite some time.
The early black comedy at first gently introduces us to the endearing Brewster family, with ancestors descended from the Mayflower, as the sisters lovingly care for Teddy, who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt during his years as President. 0n the side they advertise for lonely old men to come to them as potential lodgers then poison them with their homemade elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine, and just a pinch of cyanide.
Unlike the real Miss Archer-Gilligan, however, the sisters don’t off their “gentlemen” for their money; instead, they see it as a Christian act to end their pain that charitably culminates in giving them a decent burial service in their basement in the graves Teddy digs believing them to be locks on the Panama Canal. See, Abby and Martha Brewster (LA newcomer Sheelagh Cullen and stalwart local theatrical mainstay Jacque Lynn Colton) are just your average American homicidal maniacs next door.
The hero of the story and the one seemingly sane family member is their nephew Mortimer (J.B. Waterman), who actually must be a little off too since he works as a drama critic for an unnamed New York newspaper despite hating the theatre and believing it can’t last much longer. “Don’t think bad things about Mortimer because he’s a dramatic critic,” Martha tells the father of their nephew’s fiancée. “Somebody’s has to do those things.”
Mortimer is all ready to marry Elaine before he finds the body of poor Mr. Hoskins in the living room window box and, after the sisters cheerfully confess to having a dozen others of their “gentlemen” interred in the cellar, in his frantic state to let everything sink in, he debates whether to go through with his promise to marry since everyone in his family is obviously destined to madness. This includes their third long-estranged evil brother Jonathan (Gera Hermann), who arrives unexpectedly with his sidekick Dr. Einstein (Ron Bottitta), a rather sketchy plastic surgeon based on real-life gangland surgeon Joseph Moran, who has just altered his boss’ face for the third time—albeit in a drunken state right after he saw the newest Boris Karloff movie.
Jonathan goes into a rage when people continuously tell him he resembles Karloff, originally a sly in-joke since the horror star himself made his stage debut in the role on Broadway. Jonathan and Einstein arrive with a “stiff” of their own, one Mr. Spinalzo, and when they try to dump the body in the window box, they find Mr. Hoskins is already in repose there and soon the Brewsters are involved in a debate as to who has the most kills under their knickers, Jonathan or his aunts.
Waterman is hilarious as Mortimer, although the worldclass deadpan performance of Cary Grant in the classic movie has always been a hard act to follow. When Grant in his confusion and shock answers the phone when the doorbell rings or states to his editor that he is “feeling a little Pirandello” (ask your elders, whippersnappers), nothing has ever been funnier, but Waterman works hard to come in a close second.
Liesel Kapp as his intended Elaine also does her best with a role that rollercoasters from ingenue to Martha Raye-like on a moment’s notice, culminating perfectly when she decides to dump Mortimer and exits with the personally home-hitting line, “You… you…critic!” Hermann and Bottitta do wonders as Jonathan and Einstein, gratefully avoiding the trap of getting lost in Karloffville and Peter Lorreland.
Alan Abelew has a trio charming turns as Elaine’s father, the head of the nuthouse where the Brewsters may all end their days, and especially as one of their potential victims saved by Mortimer in the nick of time. As various cops who put up with the Brewsters’ eccentricities and hilariously miss every under-their-noses clue about their friends’ murderous exploits, Yusef Lambert, Darius De La Cruz, and Mat Hayes are perfectly cast, but it is Michael Antosy, the cop who stays the night to persuade the tied-up Mortimer to collaborate on his potential play script, who steals the latterday-Keystone men-in-blue sweepstakes.
And of course, that leaves Colton and Cullen as Martha and Abby to consider. One thing that, even as a kid, made me first fall totally in love with the film version of Kesselring’s madhouse masterpiece was the work of Jean Adair and Josephine Hull, who originated the roles of the Brewster sisters (Karloff, who had a financial stake in the New York production, turned down reprising his turn as Jonathan in the film version since he knew he was the biggest draw on Broadway). Adair and Hull had a chemistry as the sisters that translated beautifully to film and made them the highlight of the movie, even for me eclipsing the smoothly vaudevillian pratfalls of the otherwise suave Mr. Grant.
Colton and Cullen, miraculously, have found that sweetly goofy chemistry like gangbusters, their time whenever they are onstage sure to make anyone smile from ear to ear. Explaining to Mortimer their mission to help poor lonely old creatures find their peace is hysterically funny in its abject seriousness, like two aged homicidal Mother Theresas proudly proclaiming all the good they’ve done and all the lepers they’ve healed.
These two incredible veteran performers often seem to be moving or speaking as one, almost finishing each other’s sentences and nodding conspiratorially whenever the other makes a point. Colton and Cullen could honestly have been living together in the old Brewster homestead for years. Like Adair and Hull, their performances are the heart of this Arsenic and Old Lace and make it one of the premier theatrical events in a rather parched season.