Should you see Colonial Players’ production of Arsenic and Old Lace in old town Annapolis before it closes? That depends. Are you opposed to comedy, physical, situational and verbal? Don’t go. Do you dislike well-done character acting? Stay home. Is your preference for set-free absurdist, one-person historicals or freestyle open-mic? Skip it.
If, however, you’re a fan of dark humor, screwball comedy, a beautifully rendered single set, clever use of contemporary tech, inspired direction and 1940s Hollywood, please grab your schedule, book your tickets and read the rest of this review after you’ve secured your spot.
Beginning with an excellent script is always a good start. Arsenic and Old Lace has become a community-theatre staple, for many good reasons. My companion has seen the show many times and still likes it. I remembered loving the 1944 movie, which I saw on television so long ago that I misremembered Cary Grant as James Stewart. A forgivable error, I suppose; I’m a fan of Frank Capra.
Written by Joseph Kesselring in 1939, the play enjoyed great success on Broadway for several years before Capra got hold of it, and it has been produced and re-produced fairly regularly since then. Colonial Players opens with Arsenic and Old Lace for its “Step Outside Yourself” 71st season, a series of seven shows, (the majority female-authored), designed to inspire contemplation and alternate perspective in its viewers.
Undaunted by a long history of Arsenic and Old Lace productions, director Dave Carter crafts an experience which illustrates how everything old can be new again, wrapping the production in a visual premise that is wonderfully rendered and a delightful surprise, partially owing to my refusal to read press materials beforehand. I hate spoilers. Set Designer Eric Hufford supports the production with not only a fresh eye but a lovely set, which draws the viewer in from the moment one enters the theatre. Designing a set and directing a cast allowing for seating on all sides requires additional layers of creativity, which Carter and Hufford demonstrate in full measure.
Dave Carter’s cast is lovely and likable. Dann Alagna, playing our main protagonist Mortimer Brewster, has a deft aptitude for physical comedy and is spot-on in both timing and emotion. His expressive face is comedic gold. As his daffy brother Teddy, John Halmi is a visual treat, partially due to the costuming savvy of Drea Lynn, whose work shines brightly if you’re looking for it, and is simply a natural piece of the construct if you’re not. Halmi’s vocals give Teddy an unforced authenticity which plays very well in moments of the character’s uncertainty. In a featured role that isn’t her own, Stage Manager Shirley Panek confidently portrays Mortimer’s love interest Elaine Harper, including subtleties of expression and movement that have me checking my program to be sure the mention of an understudy wasn’t a mistake.
Brooks Schandelmeier brings a beautiful looming menace to his role as Jonathan Brewster, and as Jonathan’s sidekick, Dr. Einstein, Steve Tobin does hapless and bumbling to a T. The supporting all-male cast, who play an assortment of Officers and Doctors, range greatly in age and experience, but are uniformly wonderful in their individual performances. Jack Venton, playing Officer Klein (among other roles) commits to a Brooklyn accent that never falters.
Mary Suib as Martha Brewster is a lovely foil, with a wafty vagueness that is as adorable as it is appropriate. In contrast, Bernadette Arvidson, who plays Abby Brewster, has earnest innocence on her face, but wickedly slick timing and delivery, rendering her an absolute jewel in this 14-karat cast.
Sound Designer David Cooper’s work in this production heightens the vintage aesthetic of the show, which also owes much to the excellent work of Pam Peach, Hair and Makeup Design, and the subtle genius of Lighting Designer Paul Webster. High praise is due to the Colonial Players’ entire production team, as no detail is unaddressed, from props to inter-cast chemistry, with very high values throughout. In the round seating can pose a challenge for blocking purposes, but Carter’s direction ensures that nobody looks at anyone’s back for very long, and entrances and exits are spaced so that no section of seating is neglected.
In our audience are a couple of children whose laughter (provoked largely by slapstick sequences) infects the theater. Despite its slightly grisly theme, this stalwart treasure is quite family-friendly. If you’re a fan of the snappy verbal comedies and heartwarming endings from the ‘40s, treat yourself to an evening in with the Brewster sisters and their circle of intimates, where you’ll receive a break from contemporary concerns, served with a heaping helping of humor. Elderberry wine is your own responsibility.
Running Time: Two and a half hours, including one 15-minute intermission.
Arsenic and Old Lace runs through October 5, 2019, at the Colonial Players Theater, 108 East Street, Annapolis, MD. Sunday shows are at 2 PM; all other performances begin at 8 PM. Purchase tickets at the box office, by phone at 410-268-7373, or online.