BWW Reviews: A Frighteningly Funny ARSENIC AND OLD LACE At The Fulton Theatre
There are mysteries on stage all the time - mostly by Agatha Christie. There are comedies on stage all the time - only sometimes, if one's lucky, are they by Moliere. There are farces regularly - and for those, Ray Cooney is king. The comic mystery is rarer, though, and the mystery farce in short supply indeed (one thinks of EXIT THE BODY and UNNECESSARY FARCE, if one can think of mysteries not by Christie). And then there's ARSENIC AND OLD LACE by Joseph Kesselring. It was enormously popular when it hit the stage, closing at the Hudson Theatre in 1944 after over 1400 performances. It's still enormously popular, and with reason. Though it's a mystery only in the broadest sense - as with television's "Columbo," one knows who did what; the only question is who, if anyone, will get caught for anything - it's extremely clever, the dialogue is crisp with no signs of aging, and it's still one of the funniest things out there.
At the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, the current regional production is directed by the Walnut Street Theatre's Charles Abbott, who has a tight rein indeed on the wild horses that run through the play. The wildest ones are the elderly spinster Brewster sisters, descendants of the Mayflower, wealthy, and possibly proof of devolution. Abby and Martha Brewster (Mary Martello and Jane Ridley) are mad as hatters in the sweetest way possible, aching to bring happiness and comfort to everyone they meet. They make soup for the neighborhood police officers' sick families, they have the minister to tea, they care for their beloved nephew Mortimer (Damon Bonetti), who as a theatre critic is quite obviously mean and evil enough to take care of himself anywhere at any time. Their goodness extends to poor, elderly homeless men - when they find unhappy, desolate old gentlemen, they dispatch them with their homemade elderberry wine (with a few dashes of arsenic, cyanide, and strychnine for good luck) and provide appropriate funerals for every denomination in their basement. They also care for their equally beloved nephew Teddy (Ben Dibble), who fancies himself to be President Teddy Roosevelt.
Martello and Ridley, as the geriatric angels of death of Brooklyn, have a stage chemistry that's remarkable; they really do feel as if they've been together their whole lives. Director Abbott admits his own surprise at the strength of their stage-based sisterly bond - though both have worked in Pennsylvania before, and both have appeared at the Fulton previously, they had never met before the show's rehearsals. Abby is possessed of boundless energy in her zeal for good deeds, while the elder Martha, though frail, is of strong stuff and fine mettle (some very fine work indeed by Ridley). Ben Dibble's Teddy "Roosevelt" Brewster, addressed as "Mr. President" by everyone outside the family who knows him, including indulgent police, is in equally fine form, whether charging up San Juan Hill (the staircase) or digging the Panama Canal in the basement.
Damon Bonetti's Matthew Brewster, the allegedly sanest of them - though one might wonder, as his fiancée Elaine (Jennie Eisenhower) clearly does - somehow manages to be reasonably charming, a nice feat for a theatre critic, while still being able to write his reviews before even seeing the shows. Convinced his aunts will be carted off to the mental ward along with his brother Teddy, he tries every trick in the book, and a few not yet written, to try to prevent discovery of the bodies he's just found to be hidden under the foundations of the family home. Bonetti has some nice physical comedy throughout the show, whether dashing back and forth to distract police or finding himself a bit... tied up... listening to Officer O'Hara's ideas for a new play.
Then there's long-absent - and not lamented - brother Johnny Brewster (Dan Olmstead), who's been across the world and for no good reason over the past number of years, part of them in an asylum in Indiana. Come to think of it, Matthew's being the sanest of the Brewsters isn't a huge claim to normalcy. Johnny, who's had repeated plastic surgeries to disguise himself after his various criminal enterprises, is accompanied by his sidekick and surgeon, Dr. Herman Einstein (a riotously funny Laurent Giroux). To Abbott's and Olmstead's great credit, Johnny, whose features are a bit "off," to say the least, and who's supposed to look a bit like Boris Karloff, looks as if he's had some unfortunate work done, but doesn't have a painful resemblance to Frankenstein's monster visually, nor is the physicality or voice overplayed for a vague Karloff impression. (Karloff played Brewster on Broadway, so the joke was self-referential then. Now it's a trap for overenthusiastic makeup designers.)
The police, both deferential to the Brewsters and enthusiastic in their determination to keep Brooklyn safe, are collectively fine, but Officer O'Hara - John-Charles Kelly, last seen at the Fulton in WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION - is particularly notable. O'Hara's a delightful character anyway, but Kelly invests him with a charming obtuseness that perfectly captures the essence of any enthusiastic hobbyist who's found time to be alone with one of his professional idols, as Kelly finds Bonetti's incapacitated Matthew to be the perfect listener to his plot ideas. Kelly and Bonetti make this scene, which is always funny, one of the great moments of this production. Olmstead and Giroux, also in the scene, are equally amusing, and their parts equally neatly handled.
Kudos to Colleen Grady for costume design, with nice use of both period styling and the even-then-vintage fashions for Abby and Martha. Additionally, Robert Klingelhoefer's set is a visual treat, and very effective in all regards. Though it's in no way identical to the set for THE WOMAN IN BLACK, it's every bit as neatly handled and as attractive. Abbott himself, as director, has done a very fine job tying all of the threads together, both offstage and on, and in keeping the rampant onstage insanity running smoothly. The pacing within the scenes is timed perfectly for continual comic effect. That's crucial here, as this show perhaps is proof positive that, as David Garrick said on his deathbed, dying is easy - it's comedy that's hard. Abbott and the cast and crew make it look easy here, as it should.
At the Fulton through February 16. Call 717-397-7425 or visit www.thefulton.org for tickets. It's a shame that comedies simply don't fill seats as well as musicals do, because the show deserves a longer run. Everyone does this play, and often, from professionals to community theatres to schools, but rarely this well. It's worth seeing this production, no matter that you've seen it (or the movie) before, to get a feel for what this show should look like on stage.