Lisa Anne Bailey is the Artistic Director of the Vpstart Crow productions, an 18-year-old company that strives to put on classic plays for modern audiences. The play is on the George Mason University campus at the Hylton Performing Arts Center.
Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesserling premiered in 1941. It was his most popular and well-known play and continues to be performed often around the country. As director Rachael Murray states, echoed by at least one critic from the time it premiered, it’s not the best play ever written, but it is really, really funny.
It was made famous by a movie with Cary Grant in the main roll, and it bears mentioning that the movie doesn’t resemble the play in much beyond general theme. Yes, there is murder by old ladies, but the entire rest of the plot is unique in the theatrical version and you can’t just see the movie to get the full effect of this crazy play.
Rachael Murray has chosen a straightforward period interpretation set in the ‘40s about two sisters (Carole Preston and Dorothy Scheutze) who send their gentlemen house guests to their final rest with elderberry wine and poison and leave them to be buried in the cellar by their nephew who believes he’s Teddy Roosevelt (John Klenk). Then the only sane one in the family, the third nephew Mortimer (Bryan Friel) finds the body in the window seat and tries to get them to stop. It’s all good until their other nephew Jonathan (Gene Schmiel), who has quite the body count of his own due to some kind of mob activity, shows up.
Mortimer’s day job is a theater critic, by the way, which was ironic for me in the audience critiquing the play. Obviously the playwright had some run-ins with unscrupulous theater critics, because he pokes fun at his main character the entire play. It was all good fun, like when he writes the review of one before he actually goes to the play.
With this kind of screwball comedy, timing is everything and the pace was so slow that the focus seemed to be on getting every word exactly right at the expense of some of the laughs and the spread out set meant we spent time watching people walk back and forth. But Friel brings real energy to his scenes as the theater critic whose family is going crazy. His fiancé (Chelsea Mayo) proved a worthy foil to him as well, though unfortunately she was always ordered to leave the house so she wouldn’t find a body. The three policemen, played by Matt Stephan, Ben Jablonowski, and Chaz Pando did much with their few scenes as well. They all reveled in their Brooklyn accents and their attempt to drag a body across the stage was pretty funny.
Gene Schmiel, the crazy brother, really got into his role, and a shout out goes to makeup artist Kelly Verdon for pasting on his face. She was creative with the way she showed the surgery the character gets to hide his identity. And I don’t know if it was casting, makeup, or coincidence, but there are multiple mentions in the play about how he looks like Boris Karlov and it’s really true. Klenk (Teddy Roosevelt) had much fun with the role, and it was obvious.
Carole Preston and Dorothy Scheutze anchored the production. You could not imagine two sweeter old ladies, and as they calmly discuss murdering people, it was appropriately disturbing
The set by Maria Johnson includes some beautiful pieces of antique furniture and she’s staged the doors, windows, and stairs all over the stage to accommodate all the running in and out and upstairs and downstairs the play requires. The sisters say that electricity was just installed in the house and Lighting Designer Stephen Winkler had his work cut out for him as they turn it on and off in every room in every scene. Costume Designer Ben Kelley did a good job on period costumes that I imagine are getting scarcer. Particularly the two sisters outfits for the “funerals” of their latest guests are well imagined.
In the end it’s clear that they have great passion for this comedy, but they left some laughs on the table in their timing. Such a delicate balance is required of a play with such gruesome subject matter. Sometimes it wobbles from funny to macabre, but Murray delivers on the promise she first made – I did laugh.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes with a 15 minute intermission.
Arsenic and Old Lace plays through October 7, 2012 at the Hylton Performing Arts Center – 10960 George Mason Circle, in Manassas, VA 20110. For tickets, call (888) 945-2468 or purchase them online. Here are directions.