I somehow have lived to this ripe middle age and worked in the theater for three decades without ever having seen a production of Joseph Kesselring’s macabre farce Arsenic and Old Lace. Never read it. Haven’t even seen the movie starring Cary Grant. Apart from a general familiarity with the plot and the antics of the wildly dysfunctional and charmingly murderous Brewster family, I went into the Arts Barn in Gaithersburg last night with a largely clean slate.
The play is over 80 years old now, and after its notable run of 1,444 performances on Broadway, it apparently became the exclusive province of amateur troupes worldwide; if anything, the script’s baked-in and time-tested comedic elements mean that it can endure even the Rudest of Mechanicals. Yet where other plays from that era like Our Town are still performed by theater companies at all levels, the regional and semi-pro theater world has yet to reclaim Arsenic; perhaps they know something the community theater world doesn’t?
I have to imagine that this was a bracingly shocking comedy for its time, and the darkly comic elements might have been a tonic for audiences looking to escape the grim news from Europe and the Pacific. This seemingly sweet pair of rich old spinster sisters, descended from the Mayflower and flush with family money, have killed a dozen solitary male boarders, buried in the basement by their delusional nephew Teddy, who thinks he’s Theodore Roosevelt and that these poor souls had died of yellow fever during the digging of the Panama Canal. Then there’s the prodigal Jonathan, a murderous gangster with a body count rivaling his aunts, traveling with his personal plastic surgeon Dr. Einstein. And then, the worst of the lot, is Mortimer. He’s… brace yourself… a drama critic.
There are definitely elements that have not aged well. A lot of the humor is topical but dated, though judging by the audience, Hitler jokes still have mileage. Mortimer’s description of his family as “If Strindberg wrote ‘Hellzapoppin’” might require a pair of explanatory footnotes in the program (along with, alas, the concept of a professional drama critic). And the whole schtick about how much Jonathan looked like Boris Karloff in theory should only work when actually played by Boris Karloff (which he did for most of the Broadway run). And then there’s the issue of how the ingenue character, Elaine Harper, unconditionally loves Mortimer; lucky for him given how utterly awful he is to her throughout the play.
As a critic, I’ve focused lately on the region’s community scene, and thus far I’ve been fortunate to have seen productions that largely transcended their amateur status with inspired performances and/or directing. Sandy Spring Theatre Group’s production is… a bit more of a struggle.
I preface my critical remarks by noting that a semi-pro reviewer with a background in professional theater runs the risk of inherent unfairness when reviewing a community theater production. Even grading on a curve, if I’m too effusive, I’m patronizing. If I’m too harsh, I’m a bully. All I can do as a reviewer is evaluate how likely that you, the prospective audience member, will have a good time.
If there were issues with actors stumbling over lines and cue pickups, and some tech cues not quite happening at the right time, I must acknowledge that I attended opening night, and if the show perhaps needed another week of run-throughs before opening, the it will likely be much tighter by its January 28 closing.
John Van Eck is a capable lead as Mortimer, Maureen Betz endures through a thankless role as Elaine, Ted Culler is suitably menacing as Boris, I mean, Jonathan, and Steve Kaufman nearly steals the show as Dr. Einstein. Karen Winokur and Julia Frank are treacly-sweet as the pair of serial killers, and indeed the entire cast is consistent.
The biggest issue with the production is that Arsenic is supposed to be a farce, and under David Levin’s direction it never quite reaches the requisite level of manic energy. Instead of a rolling boil, it lumbers along for two and a half hours on a low simmer, letting the script do the bulk of the heavy lifting. Even with the cast toiling gamely and an opening night audience doing their level best to give them the benefit of the doubt, it never quite finds its lane, and we do feel the full length of the running time.
That said, it’s hard for me to hold the director accountable when his day job is literally curing cancer; truly, this is a reminder that this is an amateur cast who have fulfilling careers in other fields and are all doing this for fun. Even if this wasn’t my cup of tea, believe me, I’ve seen professional theaters and aspiring semi-pro groups deliver far greater crimes against the art form.
Just… stay out of my basement.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including intermission.
Arsenic and Old Lace plays through January 28, 2024 (Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 2 pm), presented by Sandy Spring Theatre Group performing at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn, 311 Kent Sq Rd, Gaithersburg MD. Purchase tickets ($22; $20, student; $15, 14 and under) online.
COVID Safety: Masks are encouraged but not required.
Arsenic and Old Lace
By Joseph Kesselring
Directed by David Levin
Cast: Karen Winokur (Abby), Julia Frank (Martha), John Van Eck (Mortimer), Ted Culler (Jonathan), Jim Kitterman (Teddy), Maureen Betz (Elaine), Nathan Chadwick (Dr. Harper/Lt. Rooney), Steve Kaufman (Dr. Einstein), Peter Orvetti (Brophy), Trish Pisarra (O’Hara), Margaret McCabe Janicki (Klein), Ed Silverstein (Gibbs/Witherspoon)