Without a doubt, Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace is a glistening jewel of Twentieth Century American Theatre. The giddy, dark comedy debuted on Broadway in January of 1941 as the world was becoming more and more mired in the horror of yet another world war. Written by Kesselring as a thriller, it was turned into a black comedy with the nudging of producer Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse who had just had a hit with Life with Father. The script features a character that is said to resemble Boris Karloff. Lured by the producers into the show, the actor, famed for his portrayals of Frankenstein’s monster, agreed to take the role despite some significant stage fright after having worked strictly in films for a decade. The show continued for 1,444 performances. Arsenic and Old Lace has been revived many, many times over the last seventy-plus years. The show is hilarious on the page and sure-fire funny in performance, even with a cast of teenagers.
Briefly, for those who don’t know it, who are legion, Arsenic and Old Lace is now a period piece set in Brooklyn in the time it was written. Two wonderfully dotty old spinsters, Martha Brewster (Jacque Lynn Colton) and her sister Abby (Sheelagh Cullen), live in a big old house with their nephew Teddy (Alex Elliott-Funk), who believes himself to be President Theodore Roosevelt and roams the house shouting “Bully” and running up stairs yelling “Charge” as if assaulting San Juan Hill. The sisters are adorably kind and committed Christians who dote on their other nephew Mortimer (J.B. Waterman), a reluctant theatre critic for a New York newspaper, who is sweet on Elaine (Liesel Kopp), the daughter of the minister who lives next door. In their Christian goodness, the old dames have taken up the cause of poor old men (Alan Abelew, who also serves as Elaine’s father, Rev. Dr. Harper, and Mr. Witherspoon) who have no families and are sad on life. They welcome them into their home with the prospect of letting them stay as lodgers, then put them out of their misery with a glass of elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine and cyanide. Teddy, thinking he is digging the Panama Canal, buries them in the basement. The play’s action ratchets up when another nephew, Jonathan (Gera Hermann), a serial killer, shows up with his “associate,” Dr. Einstein (Ron Bottitta), a plastic surgeon who worked on Jonathan’s face while drunk after seeing the film, Frankenstein. Jonathan was not pleased with the results.
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble has mounted a superb production of the play satisfying in all aspects. Directed by Elina de Santos, the show is fast paced, hilarious and boasts impeccable timing. The play creates nostalgia for a time when police actually walked a beat and knew the neighborhood. Officers Klein (Darius De La Cruz), Brophy (Mat Hayes) and O’Hara (Michael Antosy) show up from time to time. And even the precinct Lieutenant (Yusef Lambert) makes an appearance to tie up loose ends.
This ensemble of terrific players are as tight as tight can be, playing with boundless energy. J.B. Waterman carries the show as the pivotal character, Mortimer. As his girl friend and fiancée, Liesel Kopp is quite modern in her enthusiastic expressions of desire. Alex Elliott-Funk careens around the stage with awkward, witless precision as Teddy. Gera Hermann makes a fine snarling villain and Ron Bottitta cringes with appropriate servility as the toady, Dr. Einstein. The heartbeat of the show is always the beloved aunties, and Jacque Lynn Colton and Sheelagh Cullen are simply terrific, playing with smooth, graceful authority.
The scenic design by Bruce Goodrich, with lighting by Leigh Allen, is spectacularly good, an utterly satisfying detailed unit set representing an elegant upper bourgeois American home of the 1940s, with floral wall paper, a fine rug, paintings on the wall, matching furniture, and an authentic candlestick telephone—kudos to props master Misty Carlisle. Costume designer Amanda Martin captures the look and feel of the period. I especially liked the crisp uniforms of the cops, and I appreciated their smart, choreographed saluting. The preshow and interval music consisting of no small amount of Little Rascals themes and other expressions of musical whimsy by sound designer Christopher Moscatiello is utterly delightful.
Like an old and noble warship, the play may creak a bit, and there may be an occasional lag in the action, but true to form it wins the day in spades. Go see it. It’s fun! Arsenic and Old Lace runs through October 8 at Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. in Los Angeles.