A 1940s comedy, Arsenic and Old Lace, plays at NAT

A 1940s comedy, Arsenic and Old Lace, plays at NAT

By Edith McCauley, Theater Critic

Originally conceived as a dark melodrama, Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace opened on Broadway in 1941. The immediate audience reaction was howls of laughter. The playwright was incensed, but Arsenic and Old Lace played in theaters for the next 50 years.

The sheer physicality of the humor and the lines delivered in all seriousness by the actors recalls the slapstick comedy of vaudeville. The young audience at opening, unfamiliar with the storyline, responded with hilarity, much to the delight of the cast.

Richard Raether’s casting includes newcomers and those with years of experience. Jessica MacDonald and Pat Staaf as the Brewster sisters give their characters the naivete of their generation, while plotting crimes with complete confidence. The family home, a combination of antiques and a mysterious laboratory, is the setting for the erratic family whose mental instability centers the action.

It gets crazier and crazier… Teddy Brewster, played by Keith Conway, the reincarnation of Teddy Roosevelt, shouts his way up San Juan Hill and digs the Panama locks in the basement. His struggle to carry one of his aunt’s victims to his resting place gives the show a typical moment of ridiculousness.

The arrival of Jonathan, played by Gary Wingert, and his bumbling plastic surgeon, Dr. Einstein (Rod MacDonald) intensifies the mad interaction. Mass murder seems to run in the family. Sanity is represented by Mortimer Brewster (Dan Rodden) and his fianceé Elaine (Lydia Berger). Making sense of the sister’s behavior culminates in Mortimer’s decision to place them and Teddy in the safe environment of Dr. Witherspoon’s (Jack Rabito) home for the mentally ill.

The supporting cast, John Cobb, Jamie Button, Stephen McCarty, Jordan Reeves, and Ken Staaf represent law and order. The charming sisters bamboozle them all. A bit of arsenic in their homemade elderberry wine brings nirvana to the lonely old men who come to rent a room.

Remounting an old classic can be risky. NAT’s original plan to stage Harvey, another comedy from the same era, fell through when they were unable to acquire the rights. Gary Wingert was cast in the Jimmy Stewart role.

It would have been perfect for him, but his Frankenstein interpretation of Jonathan presents the opportunity to take every moment on stage to the very edge.

We who are familiar with every line and joke still enjoy the work, but those experiencing Arsenic and Old Lave for the first time laughed as much as I did when Abbott and Costello’s films played during my teen-age years. Playing in three acts, Arsenic and Old Lace runs through Feb. 2. It’s recommended for an evening of fun.

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