Arsenic may not have a place in everyone’s cup of tea, but Horse Trade and the Dysfunctional Theatre Company serve up a wickedly delicious brew with their production of Joseph Kesselring’s chestnut Arsenic and Old Lace. Director Eric Chase has assembled an outstanding cast who manage to make even the most dated material in the 1939-penned farce fresh and enjoyable. Of course it is hard to figure out why anyone would stage this community theater warhorse in the heart of the hip East Village. I suppose the occasion of the 70th anniversary of Kesserlring’s writing of this classic is reason enough. And if the play seems out-of-place and slightly irrelevant today, the faithful direction and the true-to-period acting make it a satisfying look back at an edgy black comedy from the 1930s.
The tightly constructed plot revolves around the nefarious murdering duo Abby and Martha Brewster (Marilyn Duryea and Vivian Meisner, respectively), sisters who lure lonely men to their home pretending to have a room for rent. Vivian serves the men an elderberry wine concoction made from her own recipe. “For a gallon of elderberry wine, I take one teaspoon full of arsenic, then add half a teaspoon full of strychnine, and then just a pinch of cyanide.”
On the day that he becomes engaged to the girl-next-door, Elaine (Jennifer Gill), the Brewsters’ nephew Mortimer (Rob Brown) discovers a freshly killed body hidden in the window seat at his aunts’ home. A brother that believes he is Teddy Roosevelt (Teddy played by Peter Schuyler) and a brother recently escaped from an institute for the criminally insane (Jonathan played by Justin Plowman) add further madcap mania to fill out the three acts of the play.
Jonathan and his accomplice Dr. Einstein (Ron Bopst) show up with a dead body of their own to be rid of, and the case of mistaken corpses keeps everyone entertainingly baffled. A dizzy swirl of police officers, a prospective lodger, and visiting doctors swell the cast size to an impressive thirteen. Notably, there is not a single false note in Chase’s casting. Even the small detail, repeated in the script, of Jonathan bearing a resemblance to Boris Karloff is happily met in Plowman’s scowling mug.
Duryea and Meisner anchor the show with wonderfully understated and nostalgic presences. Duryea and Meisner effectively invoke a sense of aging Victorian matrons with old, classic movie voices and expressive hauteur. It is a wonderful treat to see women over 50 on the stage, as that seems rarer than seven-legged frog sightings, unless, of course, said actresses are terrible. But Duryea and Meisner never disappoint and remain luminous highlights of the production.
Equally effective, Rob Brown seems lifted from a screwball 30s or 40s comedy as Mortimer Brewster. Mortimer, an unwilling drama critic who delivers scathing reviews to Broadway dramas, finds himself caught up in a private, domestic drama that leaves him dizzy and desperate. Brown plays Mortimer’s bewilderment and frantic aimlessness to brilliant comic effect. Plowman and Bopst are delectable in their roles as bumbling villains who invade the house, unwelcome, and insinuate themselves by force of will. Gill’s spunky take on the forgettable, miffed girlfriend Elaine and her charming 40s mannerisms are a welcome and lively surprise. And Yanni Walker makes magic as the drunken Officer O’Hara, a frustrated playwright/policeman who forces Mortimer to listen to the plot of an outrageously implausible and painfully long idea for a play.
Chase pads two of the play’s smaller roles, Officer Brophy (Michael DeRensis) and Officer Klein (Craig Peterson) with a sort of narration that starts the play off with a slapstick turn-off-the-cell phones speech and act closers and introductions that are surprisingly effective. DiRensis and Peterson sell these bits with panache and personal charm. They must be charming, because padding a two and half hour play is usually deadly and infuriating.
If you are anxious to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the penning of a seminal American dark comedy (and who isn’t?), Arsenic and Old Lace is a satisfying, nostalgic indulgence that shouldn’t be missed.
For tickets and showtimes, consult SmartTix at www.smarttix.com .