BWW Reviews: A.D. Players' ARSENIC AND OLD LACE Proves The Classic is as Funny as Ever

Joseph Kesselring wrote ARSENIC AND OLD LACE in 1939, and the darkly comic play premiered on Broadway on January 10, 1941 at the Fulton Theatre, now named the Helen Hayes Theatre. Brooks Atkinson, theatre critic for The New York Times, famously stated that the play was "so funny that none of us will ever forget it." Eventually, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE moved to the Hudson Theatre, and closed on June 17, 1944, after having played 1,444 performances. The zany, madcap comedy is considered to be Joseph Kesselring's most successful play and is one that still manages to captivate audiences today. A.D. Player's current production of the classic, well directed by Joey Watkins to pop with delightful enthusiasm and energy, proves that the roughly 74-year-old play is as funny as ever.

The plot revolves around the elderly Brewster sisters, living in Brooklyn. The sweet and caring pillars of the community are also serial killers. After their nephews Mortimer and Jonathan moved out of the family home, they began listing the vacant rooms for rent. Drawing lonely, older gentlemen with no family or friends, they literally kill the men with kindness, giving them homemade Elderberry Wine that is laced with a blend of arsenic, strychnine, and cyanide. Of course, the plot grows more interesting when their straight-laced nephew Mortimer discovers their unusual hobby and says his aunts murdered the men. Refusing to see it that way, his aunt Abby exclaims "Murdered? Certainly not! It's one of our charities!" Then, the plot thickens when Jonathan Brewster, a deranged criminal with a new face that resembles Boris Karloff's, returns to the family home with his Whiskey swigging plastic surgeon of an accomplice in hopes of setting up shop in his grandfather's old medical laboratory in the attic. Adding a hilarious complication to it all is their nephew Teddy, who thinks he is President Theodore Roosevelt. For him, the stairs are San Juan Hill and the basement is the Panama Canal

As the central characters, Patty Tuel Bailey and Stephanie Bradow bring charming life to Abby Bewster and Martha Brewster, the dotty older women. Despite being serial killers, they each bring a naïveté and innocence to their characters that earn everything from chortles to guffaws.

The romantic leads, Mortimer Brewster and Elaine Harper, are played well by Kevin Dean and Julie Fontenot. Kevin Dean fills Mortimer with a nervous energy that is captivating and comedic, especially as he panics when he discovers multiple dead bodies throughout the production. Julie Fontenot's Elaine is nicely beguiling. My only complaint about her in the production is that her Elaine doesn't have that youthful, ingénue-like glow about her. In the role, she reads as older than she should. Also she opted to draw the stocking seams on her legs rather than buying expensive replicas of vintage seamed stockings, but the lines are not straight. Perhaps another member of the cast or crew should help her out with that task. Lastly, the snood she wears sits too low.

Marty Blair's Jonathan Brewster and Marion Arthur Kirby's Dr. Einstein are sinister and dark personages that add a light but satisfying layer of danger to the production. Marty Blair is menacing, using angular facial expressions, his size, and a limp to intimidate the other characters on the stage. Additionally, his pale skin, blacked eyes, and visible stitches on his face only serve to make him all the more imposing and frightening.

Fully embracing the comedic elements of his role, Stephen Hurst's Teddy is a sprightly character that leaves the audience rolling with laughter. Whether he is yelling "charge" and then racing up the stairs or releasing toneless bleats from a bugle, Stephen Hurst earns voluminous laughter. Likewise, his pristinely paced and played physical comedy routine as he emptied the window seat in Act II earned copious amounts of giggles and instantaneous applause at last night's performance.

The supporting cast of characters, played by Craig Griffin, Jason Hatcher, and Chip Simmons, are all given ample life as well.

Scenic Design by Mark A. Lewis gave me instant flashbacks to when I was in a 2001 production of the play at the Baytown Little Theatre. His set was charming, well decorated, perfectly colored, and looked extremely homey and inviting, just as Abby and Martha would want it. Moreover, Properties Design by Trisha Wise appears researched and period appropriate, as does Costume Design by Donna Southern Schmidt and Patty Tuel Bailey.

Despite it's age, the jokes, innuendos, and clever situations in Joseph Kesselring's ARSENIC AND OLD LACE still feel fresh and easily interest audiences. If anything, some of the dialogue may be funnier now than it was in 1941 as our contemporary euphemisms and colloquialisms lend double entendres to lines that may have not been originally intended for such uses. The production by A.D. Players is lively and captures all the notes of comedy, romance, and danger that one would expect from the production, giving Houston audiences a fun night out at the theatre.

Running time: 2 hours and 25 minutes with two intermissions.

ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, produced by A.D. Players, plays the A.D. Players' Grace Theater, 2710 West Alabama Street, Houston, 77098 now through October 6, 2013. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday evenings at 7:30pm, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00pm, and Sunday matinees at 2:30pm. For more information or tickets, please visit or call (713) 526-2721.

Photos courtesy of A.D. Players.

Patty Tuel Bailey as Abby Brewster.

Stephanie Bradow as Martha Brewster.

Patty Tuel Bailey as Abby Brewster & Stephanie Bradow as Martha Brewster.

Kevin Dean as Mortimer Brewster.

Kevin Dean as Mortimer Brewster, Stephanie Bradow as Martha Brewster & Patty Tuel Bailey as Abby Brewster.

Kevin Dean as Mortimer Brewster & Julie Fontenot as Elaine Harper.

Kevin Dean as Mortimer Brewster.

Marty Blair as Jonathan Brewster.

Marion Arthur Kirby as Dr. Einstein & Marty Blair as Jonathan Brewster.

Stephen Hurst as Teddy Brewster.

Kevin Dean as Mortimer Brewster.

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From This Author David Clarke