The premises of some plays have stood the test of time, earning our appreciation and renewing our love of the theatre. One of those plays is the dark comedy of “Arsenic and Old Lace, which was written in 1939 by playwright Joseph Kesselring, who was inspired by the real-life madness of the seemingly innocuous Amy Duggan Archer Gilligan. Over a century ago, she was apprehended for killing her clients, via poison, in a home she ran for invalids and the elderly in Windsor, CT.
This chilling piece of history was conflated with a passing thought Kesselring had of his adorable grandmother in Gilligan’s place, later manifested as two spinster sisters, their poisonous elderberry wine concoction, and their three beleaguered nephews (two of whom, Teddy and particularly Jonathan, are exceedingly more troubled than the relatively normal Mortimer). Combined with supporting characters, and a grand comedic potential that was actualized by the backing of producers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, the play remains underrated nearly 80 years later.
Playing through October 8th at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in West Los Angeles, “Arsenic and Old Lace” is absolutely as uproarious as ever, farcical in meaning but well-measured and executed with comic flair. With a stellar scenic and lighting design by Bruce Goodrich and Leigh Allen, respectively, the actors, who are clad in genuine-looking period costumes by Amanda Martin, and are coalesced into a team by director Elina de Santos, bring Martha and Abby Brewster’s boarding house to life — so much so that attendees may think they’re inside a living room rather than a theatre. As aunties to Mortimer, Teddy, and Jonathan, Martha and Abby are upstanding citizens of Brooklyn, NY, and friends to most members of their community, including the police officers. Yet, their dirty little secret kindles a series of absurd events that have enough plausibility to make us laugh in a feverish narrative that impressively resolves the characters’ arcs, which are depicted by a terrific cast.
Certainly, the play succeeds as beautifully as it does, as a laugh-out-loud affair, because Jacque Lynn Colton (Martha) and Sheelagh Cullen (Abby) imbue their roles – who are objectively murderers – with a detachedly charming easygoingness that almost normalizes their actions. One line that epitomizes this is when Abby pleadingly says to Mortimer, “We don’t try to stop you from doing the things you like to do!” As personalities, the two are truly as sweet as can be, the picture-perfect delineation of how all elderly aunts should comport themselves. They are kind and hospitable, but somehow they’ve rationalized their altruism to mean that they’re doing lonely aged men a charitable favor by putting them out of their misery.
The sisters live with their beloved nephew Teddy (Alex Elliott-Funk), who is affected by a form of dissociative identity disorder, since he actually believes himself to be President Teddy Roosevelt. Elliott-Funk plays the bugle-blowing Teddy with an outstandingly cogent believability and suitable blindness to his surroundings, “charging” up the staircase, and “digging locks” in the “Panama Canal” – in actuality, the cellar – where the graves of the 12 men who died in the boarding home are situated.
While crazy, Teddy is harmless, though the same can’t be said for his brother Jonathan (Gera Hermann), a fugitive from justice, who appears with pseudo plastic surgeon and friend, Dr. Einstein (Ron Bottitta) in the middle of the night. Unlike Teddy, Jonathan’s mercurialness has taken on a very homicidal complexion; and, in fact, he bears an uncanny resemblance to Boris Karloff (note: Karloff self-referentially played Jonathan in the original 1941 production) since his latest face-masking procedure by Dr. Einstein didn’t go exactly as planned. Hermann is delightfully creepy in the role, prowling and slinking through the scenery with a stone-cold sensibility, albeit with a subtle tongue-in-cheek wink to the audience, which is entertaining to watch. Dr. Einstein, on the other hand, is not as deranged, as he is mostly motivated by his fear of what Jonathan would do if defied. Bottitta demonstrates this internal struggle with a weary franticness that adds greater stakes and a palpitating urgency to each of the scenes he is in.
Not all the characters in “Arsenic and Old Lace” are outwardly insane, however, and this is a good thing because it allows the pervasive conflict to be counterbalanced by one who is saner and moralistic. This is where the third nephew, Mortimer Brewster, comes in. As a frustrated theatre critic, Mortimer has his mettle and tolerance for what he can bear to see unfold tested over and over again. And, J.B. Waterman, who portrays Mortimer, does so with a sustained shock-and-awe intensity and passion throughout the play’s 2.5 hours, earning every bead of sweat on his brow, as his character tries to protect his loved ones, and make sense of the twists and turns, which begins with the revelation of seeing Mr. Hoskins (his aunts’ latest victim) inside the storage space of the window seat. Of course, we’re allowed to chortle as this happens, much in part due to Waterman’s comic timing as Mortimer, especially during a scene when he is oblivious to a trap that results in him being gagged and bound by Jonathan.
One noteworthy supporting character is Mortimer’s fiancé, Elaine Harper (Liesel Kopp), who is first proposed to, before having her entire evening outing canceled on her by her significant other, and then amusingly asked to leave on several occasions for her own safety. This is humorous, but also adds a degree of suspense in that we don’t want Elaine – who comes across as innocent and likable by Kopp – to potentially get in harm’s way. Other memorable characters include the fast-talking and ambitious playwright wannabe, Officer O’Hara, who is played spot-on with an energizing performance by Michael Antosy; and Mr. Witherspoon, an interested lodger who is unceremoniously kicked out by Mortimer in arguably the funniest scene of the play, and Mr. Gibbs, head of the “Happy Dale” sanatorium – both of whom (along with a third in Dr. Harper) are portrayed by seasoned actor, Alan Abelew.
Overall, thanks to an immersive ambiance, and consummate cast members who accentuate one another’s strengths, the Elina de Santos-directed “Arsenic and Old Lace,” now playing at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, has just enough of the right amount of tonic ingredients, with the correct doses, to offer an intoxicating experience that will have one keeling over with blue-in-the-face laughter.
For more information on how to purchase tickets to “Arsenic and Old Lace” at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, please visit odysseytheatre.com/arsenic_old_lace.php