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BWW Reviews: Surf City Theatre's ARSENIC AND OLD LACE Is A Real Killer Comedy


According to the opening night review in The New York Times, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE was "so funny that none of us will ever forget it." This classic play has been produced around the world and will continue to be done as long as audiences love to laugh at the outrageous situations and over-the-top characters, especially the eccentric, and frequently murderous and disturbed, family. The "murderous old lady" plot line may also have been inspired by actual events that occurred in a house in Windsor, Connecticut, where a woman, Amy Archer-Gilligan, took in boarders and allegedly poisoned them for their pensions.

First produced in 1939, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE by American playwright Joseph Kesselring is a farcical black comedy revolving around the Brewster family, descended from the "Mayflower," but now composed of insane homicidal maniacs. The hero Mortimer Brewster (James Jeffrey Caldwell, who stepped into the central role nine days prior to opening) is a drama critic who must deal with his crazy, homicidal family and local police in Brooklyn, NY as he debates whether to go through with his recent promise to marry Elaine Harper (Justine Bierne), the woman he loves.

Mortimer's family includes two spinster aunts, Abby and Martha Brewster (Sheryl Goodspeed and Melody Cohen) who have taken to murdering lonely old men by poisoning them with a glass of home-made elderberry wine (said berries picked from the loyal graveyard, no less) by lacing it with arsenic, strychnine, and "just a pinch" of cyanide. His brother Teddy (scene stealer Daniel Tennant) believes he is Theodore Roosevelt and digs locks for the Panama Canal in the cellar of the Brewster home (which then serve as graves for the aunts' victims).

To top it off, his long-lost murderous brother Jonathan (Lorin McCraley), who is now scar-faced after receiving many rounds of plastic surgery to try and hide his identity from the police, shows up with yet another dead body, accompanied by an alcoholic accomplice, Dr. Einstein (Stephen Beal), who some believe was based on real-life gangland surgeon Joseph Moran. Poor Johnny now looks like horror-film actor Boris Karloff, a self-referential joke as the part was originally played on Broadway by Karloff.

Popping in and out during most of the play are local police officers (Steve Sena, Kyle Grubb, Julian Vlcan) and the bombastic Lieutenant Rooney (Bob Baumsten). These men are long-time friends of the aunts and often stop in to enjoy their kindness, complete with tea and cookies. None of them suspect anything unseemly is going on in the house, and even refuse to believe it when Jonathan insists they go down to the basement and take a look.

Acting as bookends in the show is Perry Shields, first appearing as Elaine's father, Rev. Dr. Harper who also loves to sit and sip tea with the neighborly aunts, and then returning as the deus ex machina Mr. Witherspoon who appears at the end to take Teddy and his aunts to a sanitorium - for their own good.

Much of the physical humor in the play revolves around the window seat in which bodies are stored until it's time for their journey to Panama. Timing is everything, and director Regan D. Floria certainly worked diligently with her actors as the action flows with nary a pause to catch your breath. As is true in all farces, there must be several entrances and exits through which actors come and go at a dizzying pace. The most comical in the play certainly has to be Teddy's "charge" up San Juan Hill as he runs in front of the first row on his way back to his room. Daniel Tennant is obviously enjoying the role, filling every moment onstage with bits of shtick that express the befuddlement in his mind.

However, with such a small stage area, the large dining room table seemed to often get in the way of actors' movements, especially when entering or exiting through the front door into the aunts' home. On more than one occasion, when one of the aunts was carrying a large tray complete with silver tea service, it seemed as through the panel doors into the kitchen needed to be twice their size to allow for easier access. And even though nothing was dropped, I am sure I was not the only one in the audience watching, waiting, and holding my breath during their exits.

ARSENIC AND OLD LACE has two more performances on Saturday, May 10th at 8:00pm and Sunday, May 11th at 2:00pm. Tickets are $25, on sale by calling (424) 241-8040.

Surf City Theatre Company's performances are held in the Second Story Theatre located at:710 Pier Avenue in Hermosa Beach, CA 90254. (In the same building as, but just down the hall from, the Hermosa Playhouse).

From left, Abby Brewster (Sheryl Goodspeed), Martha Brewster (Melody Cohen), Mortimer Brewster (James Jeffrey Caldwell)

Daniel Tennant

From left, Jonathan Brewster (Lorin McCraley), Mortimer Brewster (James Jeffrey Caldwell), Dr. Einstein (Stephen Beal)

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