Reviewed by George Basler
On paper, Arsenic and Old Lace is a weird play. The two major characters are lovely old ladies whose only fault is that they’re serial killers. Other characters have more than a few screws loose themselves.
On the stage, though, the play is one of the truly great American farces. It was a smash hit on Broadway when it opened in 1940 and a hit Frank Capra film, starring Cary Grant, a few years later.
An entertaining production that opened this past weekend (April 7 and 8) at the Bundy Museum of History & Art in Binghamton shows why the play has retained its popularity. While the pacing is uneven at times, the capable cast from the Summer Savoyards provides enough smiles, chuckles and laughs to make it an enjoyable time.
Arsenic and Old Lace’s history is a story by itself. Joseph Kesselring, the playwright, conceived it as a dark drama based on the true story of Amy Archer-Gilligan, a murderess who took in boarders and poisoned them for their pensions.
However, his collaborators, Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse — a successful Broadway team responsible for, among other plays, Life with Father –– convinced him it would work better as a comedy. So, Ms. Archer-Gilligan was replaced by two spinster aunts who just happen to make the socially questionable choice of poisoning lonely old gentlemen with “doctored” elderberry wine.
Much to its credit, the Savoyard production, directed by Mary E. Donnelly, avoids the pitfall of being overly broad. That, at least to my mind, is the flaw of Capra film that becomes silly and tiresome and features one of Grant’s rare hammy performances.
Instead, the Savoyard production is more restrained and never goes over the top. It retains a sense of comic believability and is effective for that reason. On the down side, the pacing is a bit languid at times. The actors, at least at the performance I attended, occasionally seemed a bit unsure of their lines and were slow to respond to each other. That threw off the play’s essential timing.
At other times, though, the pacing was pitch perfect, and the action crackled. This is especially true in the second and third acts when the aunts’ homicidal nephew, Jonathan, shows up with his partner in crime, Dr. Einstein, who takes plastic surgery to a whole new level.
Jessica Pullis and Alice Caroompas give delightful performances as the two murderous aunts. The key is making the characters sweetly naïve as they logically, at least to their minds, explain why they bumped off the 12 elderly gentlemen and had them buried in the cellar. Pullis and Caroopas pull it off.
Joe Bardales also does a good job as Mortimer Brewster, the aunts’ sane nephew, who is the play’s other main character. Bardales successfully plays the character’s transition from disbelief to panic to frantic energy as he discovers his sweet aunts’ hobby.
One of the play’s humorous set-ups is that Mortimer is a dyspeptic drama critic who hates the theater. The authors must have had a blast hurling satiric darts at theater critics (ouch, that hurts) and the theater world in general. Bardales plays dyspepsia well.
As Jonathan, Chris Nickerson plays the character as a subtly evil criminal rather than raving lunatic. The interpretation is a good one. John Montgomery does a creditable job as well as Jonathan’s partner in crime, although his German accent is a bit shaky at times.
Julia Adams has the thankless job of playing Mortimer’s fiancée, the play’s ingenue role, but Adams gives the character a spunkiness that is refreshing. She makes the young woman a person who is not afraid to speak her mind, and no wallflower.
Charles Berman gives a suitably rambunctious performance as Teddy, the aunts’ benignly nutty nephew, who imagines himself to be Theodore Roosevelt. Periodically he’s dispatched to the cellar to dig another “lock for the Panama Canal.” Berman successfully parodies Roosevelt’s larger than life personality and is quite funny.
Gary Pullis does a creditable job as a befuddled police lieutenant, and Dylan Ruffo has some funny moments as a policeman who yearns to be a playwright, but unfortunately puts all his listeners to sleep as he outlines his work. It’s another humorous jab at the theater by Kesselring, Lindsay and Crouse.
The set design by “Evil Jim” creates a musty Victorian atmosphere. Eric Adler provides effective lighting design.
Even after more than seven decades, Arsenic and Old Lace retains its sparkle and ingenuity. The Savoyard production is good-natured and has a pleasing sense of lightness. And elderberry wine is available during intermissions.
Drink at your own risk.
IF YOU GO: Arsenic and Old Lace will be performed at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday (April 13 and 14) in the annex behind the Bundy Museum, 129 Main St., Binghamton. Tickets at $15 can be purchased online at www.summersavoyards.org.
The production is a joint fundraiser for the Summer Savoyards, who, since 1961, have presented Gilbert and Sullivan operettas every summer in Broome County, and for the Bundy Museum, which shares the Savoyards’ devotion to the Victorian era.