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BWW Reviews: Different Stages' ARSENIC AND OLD LACE Is Murderously Fun

Karen Jambon as Martha Brewster and Jennifer Underwood
as Abby Brewster in ARSENIC AND OLD LACE.
Photo by Bret Brookshire.

When December rolls around, it's customary for theater companies to scramble around for Holiday-themed fare. As beloved as Holiday shows are, it's refreshing when companies like Different Stages mount something decidedly in opposition of the trend. With its strong and hysterically funny production of Arsenic and Old Lace, Different Stages essentially defines how to successfully pull off counter-Holiday programming in Austin.

Shows are rarely less Holiday-centric than this. If Santa were to visit the Brewster family at the heart of Arsenic and Old Lace, he'd be presented with some milk and cookies laced with poison and would be dumped in the cellar with a dozen other stiffs (make that a dozen plus eight if the Brewsters aren't fond of reindeer). The classic 1939 comedy, penned by Joseph Kesselring, centers on theater critic Mortimer Brewster and his two loveable spinster aunts, Abby and Martha. Mortimer quickly finds out that his charming, harmless aunts are serial killers who have poisoned twelve lonely gentlemen, all of whom have been buried in their cellar. While the play may be over 70 years old, Kesselring's script is so witty and off-kilter that it feels as if it was written yesterday.

Director Norman Blumensaadt, who proved to be a master of dark comedy with last season's production of Quills, has outdone himself here. Every moment is pure comedic joy, and the laughter is often deafeningly loud. The first act's tipping point, in which the aunts set the table for dinner as they nonchalantly recount their murderous exploits to their nephew, is a particularly memorable moment in which Blumensaadt's staging greatly enhances the characters and the comedy.

Blumensaadt's also blessed with an incredible cast which wonderfully fits Kesselring's eccentric group of characters. Jennifer Underwood and Karen Jambon are brilliant as aunts Abby and Martha, respectively. They're both so enchanting and congenial that it's easy to forgive their penchant for murder. It's also fun to spot the slight differences in how the two approach the characters. While Abby and Martha are almost always in unison with each other, there are a few small and well-thought out moments that make it clear that Abby is the leader and Martha is a bit more absent-minded.

As Mortimer, Tyler Jones has the difficult task of playing the straight man to two characters that are wildly unconventional, original, and likeable. It would be easy for Mortimer to be forgotten among the zany antics of his family, but Jones more than holds his own. We care about him just as much as we do for his aunts, and there are a few moments where Jones gets to showcase his incredible comedic timing. Though they certainly don't have as much stage time, Steven Fay is delightfully sinister and villainous as Mortimer's murderous brother, Jonathan (yes, murder tends to run in this family), and Porter Gandy is plenty of fun to watch as Dr. Einstein, Jonathan's alcoholic plastic surgeon. And as Teddy Brewster, Mortimer's other brother who believes himself to be Teddy Roosevelt, Joe Hartman is a scene-stealer. His Roosevelt impersonation is exaggerated, bombastic, and over-the-top. In other words, it's flawless given the nature of this ridiculous comedy.

Running time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, including two 10 minute intermissions. ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, produced by Different Stages, plays The Vortex Theatre at 2307 Manor Road, Austin 78722 now thru December 14th. Performances are Thursday - Saturday at 8pm. Tickets are $15-$30. For tickets and information, visit

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