Take one alleged boardinghouse owned by two seemingly mild-mannered old spinsters who have the unsettling habit of poisoning their “Socially and Religiously acceptable” gentlemen borders; throw in their totally bemused nephew “Mortimer”–a Theater Critic in love (just not with theater—as it happens he loathes it!) and his equally eccentric brother who thinks he’s President “Theodore Roosevelt”; add Mortimer’s fiancé, her conservative-thinking Minister father, and yet another brother—this one a homicidal maniac named “Jonathan” who, it turns out, is a ‘dead-ringer’ (pardon the pun) for Horror film legend “Boris Karloff”; toss them all together for one frenzied and frenetic night and you have Joseph Kesselring’s classic and decidedly off-beat laugh-riot of a play known as “Arsenic And Old Lace”! Now the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in Los Angeles has re-mounted this homicidally hilarious farcical frolic filled to overflowing with madcap macabre mayhem. Directed by Elina De Santos, this new production officially bowed on Saturday, August 26th, 2017.
The year is 1941 when we’re introduced to the “Brewster Sisters”: “Abby” and “Martha”. “There’s something so unmistakably ‘Brewster’ about the Brewsters,” we’re told at one point; kind, generous and morally upright, they’re the proprietresses of a modest home in Brooklyn, New York, which sometimes takes in boarders, and to all casual observations, paragons of the community. Shortly after the story opens, the sister’s theater-hating, theater-critic nephew, “Mortimer Brewster” arrives with news that he’s at last ready to ask “Elaine Harper”—daughter of local minister, “Reverend Dr. Harper”, to marry him. The celebration is a fleeting one though, when Mortimer soon discovers the dead body of one of his Aunt’s would-be roomers stashed in the window seat of their living room. Promptly confronting his aunts, instead of denying his accusations, they simply and calmly explain that they undeniably did commit the fatal act, having poisoned the unfortunate soul with their homemade elderberry wine—and (to make matters still worse,) that he is their eleventh (–or twelfth, depending on how you count.)
He also learns that all of their victims have been elderly gentleman whom the sisters have shared their wine with, and that the two are convinced that these acts aren’t at all a crime (let alone murder) but rather acts of altruism, seeing that those they’ve ‘chosen’ are all lonely and old who don’t have much to live for anyway, so ‘doing them in’ with wine laced with arsenic, strychnine (and just ‘a pinch’ of cyanide,) is sincerely the most merciful thing any reasonable and compassionate person could do. Add to it how they’ve persuaded Mortimer’s wacky sibling “Teddy” (the one who thinks he’s Roosevelt) to help them dispose of the bodies by burying them in the cellar–digging what he believes is the Panama Canal. If all this isn’t bad enough, Mortimer and Teddy’s ‘other’ brother—himself a genuine ‘whack job’ if ever there was one–soon re-emerges with his similarly shady ‘colleague’, “Dr. Einstein”—a purported “Plastic Surgeon” who helped him to look like Horror Movie Baddie “Boris Karloff”. What’s worse—they, themselves have a body they’re hoping to dispose of! (Yep, as Mortimer ruefully acknowledges, “Insanity runs in my family—it practically gallops!” In fact, to say this bunch makes that notorious “Addams” clan look like “The Waltons” would be a humongous understatement!) What follows is a weird and wild family reunion like no other–featuring side-splitting scenes of bodies being moved from the window seat, to the cellar, to the car outside, amid a flurry of accusations and threats back and forth—all while Mortimer is trying to keep these shocking—and larcenous–goings-on from his betrothed and a trio of perhaps a bit too friendly Policemen named “Officer Brophy”, “Officer Klein’ and “Officer O’Hara”.
One of the distinctly ‘odder’ bits of theater and Americana, “Arsenic And Old Lace” played a prodigious 1,444 performances when it was first staged—eventually being adapted into the comparably iconic 1944 film directed by Frank Capra and starring Cary Grant. Entrenched in markedly murkier shades than your standard “Screwball Comedy”, it’s this very outlandishness that makes it all work so well. Much like “You Can’t Take It With You”—still another seminal comedy from the same era focused around an unconventional family, this one could more suitably be considered “You Can’t Take It With You”—after dark!
Kesselring’s first-rate script incorporates plenty of snappy one-liners and (at first hearing) off-handed remarks that, when recalled, provide clever bits of foreshadowing either relating to events that will imminently unfold, or characters who (as with any farce worth its’ salt) are soon to materialize. Although good, old-fashioned “screw-ball” comedy may not be so familiar to many audiences these days (or at least not as much as they should be) rest assured that all the ‘laugh out loud” gag-lines here still resoundingly hit their mark. So too, the Author’s knack for dialogue–itself always witty and articulate, serves as a crafty counterpoint to anchor the show’s more ‘lunatic’ moments (–and boy, are there a number of them–) while moving the action along at a fairly smooth clip. In the same regard. Kesselring filled his dialogue with plenty of delicious ironies: Take for example when “Mortimer” first enters, he’s madly in the throes of that ‘marital kind’ of amour that drives men to the altar; yet, shortly after meeting him we learn that our boy has long had the reputation for decrying the abject state of matrimony and is even a bit unsure if he can bring himself to actually pop the question to “Elaine”. Then there’s the sequence in which “Mortimer”, while bemoaning the vapid-ness of a play he recently panned, is utterly unaware that as he condemns those very elements he found to be most far-fetched, is being subjected to the very same “unbelievable” treatment he’s describing.
So how did one of the mid-20th Century’s admittedly darker comedic send-ups of modern morality become such a treasured benchmark from Broadway’s “Golden Age”? Loosely based on real-life serial killer Amy Archer-Gilligan, who was convicted of poisoning her aged boarders for their pensions, Kesselring first set out to pen a melodramatic “Grand Guignol” play titled “Bodies In Our Cellar”. After its competition, he sent a copy to actress Dorothy Stickney, hoping she might consider playing one of the aunts; however, as the story goes, rather than being intrigued or even horrified by what she read, the Actress’s main reaction was that of unadulterated amusement! Nonetheless, as luck would have it, upon hearing his wife gasping with laughter over the new script, Stickney’s husband—noted Producer Howard Lindsay, immediately became interested, soon enlisting the aid of Russel Crouse—his frequent collaborator (and subsequent co-author of the libretto for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical blockbuster “The Sound Of Music”,) just as the two were fresh off the Broadway smash “Life with Father”. Agreeing to purchase the play (provided a few changes were made,) along with Kesselring, the team completely reworked the plot into the offbeat, black comedy we know today, re-christening it “Arsenic and Old Lace”! Hailed as an instant hit once it debuted in August of 1941, one notably inventive bit of casting involved the character of “Jonathan Brewster” (of whom the new text described as resembling famed Hollywood “Boogeyman”, “Boris Karloff”.) Although by reports, it took some convincing, ultimately none other than the Star himself was persuaded to play the role on stage where he too, was acclaimed a critical sensation.
J.B. Waterman heads this cast as the hapless “Mortimer Brewster”, and his thoroughly winning take is that of a more-or-less good-natured 1940’s ‘Everyman’–likeable enough, but not without his own share of personality quirks (Mortimer is a Critic, after all!) His laid-back demeanor (at first) contrasts well with those more manic moments which commence once certain discoveries are made, and his once peaceful, supposedly well-thought out life literally goes out the window (–or the window seat as the case may be!) Better still, notwithstanding how unorthodox the occurrences he’s faced with are, Waterman expertly keeps us, the audience, right there with him, involved and cheering for him all the way (—and through them all, his reactions are priceless!) He’s joined by Liesel Kopp—who’s also a theatrical treasure as “Elaine Harper”, the girl ol’ “Mort” wants to marry. No ‘Choir-girl’ she (despite being a Minister’s daughter,) her “Elaine” is one cookie who’s a real cool customer, sizzling with sensuality just underneath the surface. Furthermore, Kopp too, has a pleasant, easy-going delivery—expertly tossing off the breeziest quips and punch-lines while always hitting the comedic bullseye: “If you think you’re going to get out of this by pretending you’re insane–you’re crazy!” she snaps at Mortimer when he tries to break their just-made engagement. To borrow from one of the key lines in the text, Waterman is never simply “Adequate” nor Kopp ever “Tedious and uninspired”. As Mortimer’s ostensibly “harmless” elderly maiden Aunties, Sheelagh Cullen is “Abby”, while Jacque Lynn Colton portrays “Martha” respectively. Each give solid performances around which all the others are pretty much built, and the Producer’s couldn’t have found two more exceptional ladies for just such a task. Both “sisters” are genial enough, (even if a bit vague at times,) which is vital to the humor—particularly given their ensuing admission, not of guilt, but rather to what they forthrightly refer to as their “Acts of charity”. With a nice, natural expressiveness, Cullen’s “Abby” is daintily dithery—but still terrifically plausible, while Colton’s turn as “Martha” is all smiles with a benign kind of gentility that makes her all the more endearing. Together they shine especially when guilelessly explaining their “Modus Operandi” in disposing of their various “Gentlemen”—often finishing one another’s sentences as they do.
Meanwhile, as Mortimer’s batty brothers, Alex Elliott-Funk is “Teddy” (who peculiarly thinks he’s the former President whose visage graces Mount Rushmore,) while Gera Hermann is “Jonathan”—a murderous Boris Karloff knock-off thanks to the efforts of his questionable cohort, “Dr. Einstein” (“—not Dr. Albert Einstein,” Jonathan reminds us when introducing him to his two Aunts, “Dr. Herman Einstein.”) “We don’t like to talk about Jonathan,” Mortimer confesses at the outset when the name comes up; “he left Brooklyn very early—by request!” He then explains how this ‘other brother’ had wanted to become a surgeon like their Grandfather, “but he wouldn’t go to Medical School first—and his ‘practice’ got him into trouble.” Sporting several large ferocious looking scars on his face (more testament to his doctor friend’s specious abilities,) Hermann refreshingly spurns a straight-up impersonation of the Actor renowned for his roles in films like “Frankenstein”, “The Body Snatcher’ and “The Raven”, offering something more subtle, subdued and seething which is infinitely more effective! Yes, he’s threatening enough, but his is more “Boris Karloff” by way of say, “The Godfather’s” Fredo Corleone, “Home Alone’s” Harry Lime, or even “Popeye’s” arch-nemesis, “Bluto”. Ron Bottitta also does a commendable job as the not-so good, “Doctor”–exercising a laudable restraint as well, thus making his character less of a Germanic ‘caricature’ and more an authentic and well-rounded entity with—dare I say it? Greater believability. Indeed, in his hands, “Dr. Einstein”, initially devised as more of a supporting (or expositional) presence, manages to stand-out is all the very best (read: funniest) ways. Also a standout in several roles is Alan Abelew, who makes his admirable protean abilities felt in the opening scene as Elaine’s father, the “Reverend Dr. Harper” (“If I know what pure kindness and absolute generosity are, it’s because I’ve known the Brewster Sisters” the Reverend asserts early on.) Later when he returns, it’s in the guise of “Mr. Witherspoon”—the Superintendent of “Happy Dale”, a local asylum Mortimer is eager to have his brother committed to. As “Mr. Witherspoon”, Abelew is also at the center of what is arguably one of the more substantial, ‘knowing’ chuckles which has been shrewdly saved for the very end (Hint: It has something to do with a specific kind of homemade wine!)
Contributing to the hilarity are the clueless coterie of cops, each of whom evince impressive Brooklyn accents and mannerisms. Fresh-faced and broadly-grinning Mat Hayes furnishes a strong jovial presence as “Officer Brophy”, while right there staunchly beside him is Darius De La Cruz as his affable partner, “Officer Klein”. Think of them as oversized, post-adolescent versions of “The Katzenjammer Kids”, or “Mutt and Jeff” with police badges. “They don’t rent rooms,” observes Klein of the sister’s perceived magnanimity; “but you can bet that anybody who comes here lookin’ fer a room goes away with a good meal and probably a few dollars in their kick”; “It’s just their way of digging up some people to do some good to,” Brophy adds—totally oblivious to the portentous irony of his statement. Then there’s Michael Antosy’s “Officer O’Hara” (of whom we learn is also a wannabe Playwright—and a Damn insistent one at that!) Giving us just a hint of “De Niro’s” rough-around-the-edges restiveness, look a tad closer and you’ll find its more his unrestrained enthusiasm and even giddiness, that Antosy is truly supplying . Either way, he also hits all the right notes. In addition, Yusef Lambert mines comic gold as their “George Raft-esque” Police Lieutenant “Rooney”—a hot-headed, tooth-pick chomping, Law Enforcement official who’s more like a refugee from “The Sopranos”, but with an apparent I.Q. more reminiscent of the Simpsons’ “Chief Wiggum”. His appearance may not occur until relatively late in proceedings, but it’s definitely worth waiting for.
Although originally staged in three acts, “The Odyssey Theatre’s” re-mounting utilizes just one intermission, presenting a high-quality production boasting Gold Medal performances, a pristine staging, and time-tested comedy that has rarely been matched. Taking full advantage of all of the scripts’ numerous strengths, it all gels under the sublimely-paced direction by Ms. De Santos (along with Assistant Directors Everett Keeter and Ellen Boener) which favors ensemble cohesiveness over any overt “star turns”. Given this route the entire enterprise thrives. Moreover, the split-level set by Scenic Designer Bruce Goodrich is a wonder in itself. A Homey little homage to all those Edwardian-era cottages that sprang up in many East-Coast burghs to serve the (then) gentrifying ‘Middle-Class’, it serves as a disarmingly charming and deceptively quaint backdrop for all of the delightfully disturbing events to play-out against; it’s the more understated–but insightful touches though, in the way the set is outfitted (courtesy of Prop Designer Josh La Cour) that really confirms the setting’s brilliance, such as how the wallpaper is faded ‘just enough’, the oblong-shaped window-seat (that, not coincidentally, is just the right size and shape for hiding a body,) or the steam-radiator that’s placed at the back. There’s also the vintage candle-stick phone, or the simple picture gallery on the up-stage stairwell wall loaded with a scattering of old tin-type photos—the list could go on, but none of it rings false or out-of-place. Enhancing this is the evocative, amber-tinged Lighting Design by Leigh Allen—which includes several nifty “candle’ effects, and casts long, looming shadows where so required. Amanda Martin’s spot-on Costume Designs also help conjure up the fateful year of 1941, while incorporating a variety of other bits apparel from previous decades, whether they’re the Victorian crepe-funerary frocks the sisters adorn, to Elaine’s sporty mid-length and more contemporary “Ann Sheridan—Redux” attire that’s flatteringly augmented by her stylish “Veronica Lake” up ‘do’, or “Teddy’s” ‘Spanish American War chic’ get-ups, as he naively digs graves in the basement. Taken as a whole, every article immeasurably adds and enhances that “Just prior to World War II” reality being created (–no matter how downright nutty it gets!) Not to be overlooked either is the pristine Sound Design by Christopher Moscatiello that also makes its mark largely by, among other things, featuring incidental music from all those jaunty 30’s era Hal Roach (–the man behind “Laurel And Hardy” and “The Little Rascals”) short-films which conducts you to your seats upon entry, then continues to vibrantly set the times during intermission.
Who’d ever think that Murder and Whimsy could go so well together? A silly, sinister—and always satisfying slice of satire, there’s giggles and guffaws galore ripe for the taking courtesy of “The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble”! “Arsenic And Old Lace” is slated to play through Sunday, October 8th, 2017 at the “Odyssey Theatre Ensemble” located at; 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. in Los Angeles, California. Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 PM, with Sunday Matinees at 2:00 PM; there will be an additional Wednesday evening performance held on September 13th, as well as two added Thursday evening performances on September 28th and October 5th. Tickets and reservations for this engagement can be obtained by calling (310) 477-2055 X 2, or on-line by visiting OdysseyTheatre.com . (Special Discounted tickets are also available for Seniors, Students and Patrons under 30.) Likewise, the third Friday of every month is “Wine Night” at the Odyssey, wherein audience members are invited to enjoy complimentary wine and snacks, and to mingle with the cast after the show.
Production Stills By Enci Box, Courtesy Of Lucy Pollak (http://www.lucypr.com ) And “The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble”; Special Thanks To: Lucy Pollak, Abby Salling, Elina De Santos, Ellen Boener, Everett Keeter, Christopher Moscatiello, Josh La Cour, And To Cast And Crew Of “The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s” 2017 Production Of “Arsenic And Old Lace” For Making This Story Possible.