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BWW Review: ARSENIC & OLD LACE Delivers Killer Performance at JPAS

Now performing through March 7.

BWW Review: ARSENIC & OLD LACE Delivers Killer Performance at JPAS
Leon Contavesprie (Mortimer Brewster), Helen Blanke (Martha Brewster), Janet Shea (Abby Brewster). Photo by Joshua Frederick

At first glance, the living room in the Brewster home is quaint and unassuming. But when young Mortimer Brewster discovers that his aunts Abby and Martha are serving their boarding guests something a little stronger than tea, things become a bit complicated in ARSENIC & OLD LACE by Joseph Kesselring. This 1939 murder-filled classic is brought to vibrant life at the Jefferson Performing Arts Center this month. If you're a fan of dark humor and screwball comedy, then you'll enjoy this enthusiastic production that nothing drives you crazy quite like family.

Directed by Kris Shaw, the play focuses on Abby Brewster (Janet Shea) and Martha Brewster (Helen Blanke), who perfectly capture the stereotype of sweet, unassuming old ladies. They turned their family mansion into a boarding house, serve their guests tea and wine, care for their disillusioned nephew, Teddy (Louis Dudoussat), and participate in charity toy drives. There's more to these sisters than at first glance, however, as their nephew Mortimer (Leon Contavesprie) discovers one of their ideas of being charitable is to murder lonely old men by adding "just a pinch of arsenic" to their wine and have Teddy bury the bodies in the cellar. Added to that is Jonathan Brewster's (Bryce Slocumb) reappearance, Teddy and Mortimer's murderous brother who recently escaped from an asylum. When he and his plastic surgeon, Dr. Einstein (Earl Scioneaux), arrive to cover up a murder of their own in the Brewster house, it's anything but a happy family gathering. As the corpses begin to pile up, ARSENIC & OLD LACE brings on the laughs while tackling the idea of what is right and how to protect the ones we love.

Set in Brooklyn, New York, ARSENIC & OLD LACE ran for three and a half years on Broadway before becoming a community-theatre staple for many good reasons. Audiences can still be charmed and amused by the play's sophisticated macabre humor. The script is filled with plenty of laughs and quick wit. A personal favorite is how the show also pokes fun at playwrights, actors, and theater in general. The jabs made by Mortimer, who works as a newspaper theatre critic, are particularly entertaining.

It takes a while for the story to unwind, and the pacing feels a bit sluggish in the first scene, but the momentum picks up the second Mortimer discovers what lies hidden in the window seat at his aunts' home, kicking off the show into high gear. Many of the funniest bits involve Mortimer dealing with his family's insanity while feeling like he's losing it himself.

To call the characters in ARSENIC & OLD LACE unconventional would be an understatement. Jonathan Brewster undergoes countless plastic surgeries to the point of resembling Boris Karloff, Officer O'Hara (Jonathan Damaré) would much rather write a play than solve a murder, and Teddy Brewster is wholeheartedly convinced that he is Theodore Roosevelt. Each cast member communicated their character's eccentricities humorously and compellingly that carries with the audience long after the curtain falls.

As the baffled drama critic Mortimer, Contavesprie is delightful as an unintended victim of his aunts' lunacy. The lithe actor's character quirks and entirely exaggerated reactions are a great part of the show. Alison Logan injects a feisty spirit into the character of Elaine Harper, the not-so-innocent girl-next-door and Mortimer's fiancée.

Shea and Blanke are perfections as the... shall we say... overly helpful sisters capable of killing strangers with "charitable" kindness. Louis Dudoussat is a hoot as the bugle-blowing Teddy Brewster.

Slocumb brings a delicious edge to his portrayal of the maniacally sinister Jonathan. His height and tone are the definitions of menacing. Scioneaux is wildly funny as Jonathan's reluctant sidekick Dr. Einstein. A particular favorite of this critic is Damaré as Officer O'Hara, whose goofy, innocent nature was a scene-stealer each time he entered the room.

Eric Porter's evocative Victorian scenic design is simply stunning with its lovely period furnishings and use of space, color, and dimension. It all adds up to fun entertainment.

So, if you're a fan of delightfully dark humor, then dive deep into this treasure that pokes fun at murder mystery clichés and soap opera twists with a twinkle in its eye. Just skip on the elderberry wine.

ARSENIC & OLD LACE runs now through March 7. Nightly shows begin at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Jefferson Performing Arts Center, 6400 Airline Drive, Metairie. For tickets, call the box office at 504-885-2000 or visit jpas.org.


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From This Author Tara Bennett