When Joseph Kesselring's Arsenic and Old Lace opened in January 1941, stiff competition from radio and film was fueling talk of the theater's imminent demise. That idea permeates Kesselring's only Broadway success. Fifty-eight years and several entertainment conglomerates later, though, the playwright's old chestnut--filled with antiquated references, stock characters and predictable sight gags--is still a respectable box-office draw. The three-act comedy is now being presented at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities. And while David Payne's forthright production suffers from a sluggish pace and a handful of two-dimensional portrayals, the nearly three-hour effort lives up to the play's longstanding reputation as a smiler of a show.
All of the action takes place in the spacious Brooklyn home (a beautifully detailed set designed by Laura Love) of the matronly Brewster sisters, Abby (Liz Jury) and Martha (Bev Newcomb-Madden). Spinsters both, the lovable old ladies fill their days by caring for their live-in nephew, Teddy Brewster (Eric Fry), a harmless middle-aged man who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt. Keeping alive (albeit in a morbid fashion) the traditions of their physician father, who made a fortune testing medical treatments on patients who visited the family home, the mischievous sisters wind up poisoning a string of prospective boarders and burying the bodies in the basement. Unfortunately, another of Abby and Martha's nephews, a real-estate reporter turned theater critic named Mortimer Brewster (Erik Sandvold) learns that his aunts have temporarily stowed one of the corpses in a window seat (it's simply awaiting a proper Methodist burial service, the women say when he discovers it). Before long, Mortimer formulates a plan to spare his aunts prison time, ship Teddy off to the loony bin and avoid further contamination of the Brewster gene pool by canceling plans to marry his fiancee, Elaine Harper (Laura Ryan), the local minister's daughter. But before he can set his scheme in motion, Mortimer is thwarted by the arrival of his long-lost fugitive brother, Jonathan Brewster (Frank Oden), and his partner in crime, Dr. Einstein (Greg Price), a plastic surgeon whose skills have helped Johnny evade authorities.
Despite director Payne's haphazard and tedious pacing, most of the performers--especially Jury, Newcomb-Madden and Ryan--manage to render believable, lighthearted portrayals. As Mortimer, Sandvold locates a bemused befuddlement and shifts it into high gear at key moments throughout the play. Near the end of the show, for instance, you can't help but appreciate his delivery of Kesselring's underhanded jab in the direction of the critical fraternity when drama reviewer Mortimer leaps to his feet and jubilantly declares to Elaine (and, in 1941, the entire New York smart set): "I'm a bastard!"
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Even so, a few of the playwright's dated in-jokes fail to resonate with today's audience members. At a recent performance, for example, Mortimer's line "You look like Judith Anderson!" (in reference to the grande dame of classical acting) was greeted with stony silence from theatergoers, as was his wicked comment, "My family is what it would be like if Strindberg had written 'Hellzapoppin'" (a 1938 vaudeville revue). Also, a recurring bit about Jonathan's resemblance to Boris Karloff probably earned chuckles only when Karloff himself starred in the original Broadway production. And although the Arvada Center's sound system makes it possible to hear every word the actors are saying, it's disconcerting to watch Aunt Abby say goodbye to a visitor on the extreme left side of the set while her voice emanates from a speaker located fifteen feet above the center of the stage. All in all, though, the performers' well-intentioned efforts serve as an enjoyable reminder that the theater, however moribund it sometimes appears, is still very much alive.
Arsenic and Old Lace, at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, through February 28, 303-431-3939.