This Arsenic Is Tasty
The central joke in the '40s comedy Arsenic and Old Lace concerns spinster sisters Abby and Martha Brewster, who are pillars of the local church, much loved in their community, and always happy to provide soup for the sick and hospitality to the lonely. They live with their nephew, Teddy, an amiable loon who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt. But the sisters have a secret: Using arsenic-laced elderberry wine, they kill lonely old men -- but only with the best of motives: to bring the old gentlemen peace. Several recipients of their benevolence are buried in the basement, and when the play opens, a twelfth is in the window seat, awaiting disposal.
Into the ladies' living room, with its teacups and lacy tablecloths, comes another nephew, Mortimer. He's a theater critic (his profession is the source of some of the evening's funniest lines), and he and his beloved, Elaine, are about to leave for a play. But Mortimer learns his aunts' secret. As he's figuring out how to deal with this knowledge, a third nephew arrives. Jonathan is a crook and a Boris Karloff look-alike who's been operating in Chicago and has piled up as many stiffs over the years as his aunts -- with far less kindly motives. He is accompanied by a nervous little sidekick reminiscent of Peter Lorre. This is Dr. Einstein, the plastic surgeon who gave Jonathan his current face and is under orders to produce a new one. All kinds of farcical and potentially lethal complications follow, and throughout the action, two crystal glasses of poisoned wine gleam on a table, awaiting the thirsty and unwary.
Though it lags in parts, the script is full of funny one-liners and outrageously inventive situations, and the Country Dinner Playhouse presents this grand old chestnut with aplomb. Although Elizabeth T. Murff and Anne Oberbroeckling aren't entirely satisfactory as the daffy sisters -- they tend to present their characters rather than inhabit them -- several strong performances carry the show.
Eric C. Dente is terrific as Mortimer, beginning the evening as a suave and sophisticated young man about town and disintegrating into yammering lunacy as the play's insane events break over his head in incoming waves. Dente's timing is sure and his movements comically loose. He's matched by Paul Borrillo, who manages a kind of easiness and authority on stage, even while playing lurching, sinister Jonathan. Gregory Price contributes a gibbering little Dr. Einstein with a German accent that actually sounds German now and then (the rest of the time, it's deliberately exaggerated). Christa Boggs-Havenhill has a nice, clear presence as Mortimer's betrothed, though she subscribes to the posing school of acting utilized by the aunts. Chris Bogart gives Officer O'Hara a bluff naturalism that contrasts well with the freneticism around him, and Al McFarland and Eugene Texas distinguish themselves in smaller roles. Finally, as crazy Teddy, David Poirier summons some astonishing facial expressions while skipping around fetchingly in khaki shorts.
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