ARSENIC AND OLD LACE: A “Killer” Comedy at HP&P

by Jessica Martin

(LtoR) Paul Brodo, Gary Werner, Phyllis Josephson and Debbi Nanni-Zacher star in Haddonfield Plays and Players' ARSENIC AND OLD LACE. (Photo credit: David Gold)

It’s easy to see why ARSENIC AND OLD LACE is a popular offering among community theatre groups. It’s a sure-fire laugh getter, a dark comedy that no one takes seriously despite multiple murders and a truly evil character. It has been said that its author, Joseph Kesselring, originally conceived it as a serious drama, based on actual events in New England. However, producers (and “play doctors”) Howard Lindsey and Russell Crouse saw its comedic potential and convinced him otherwise. It is a play that must be kept in its original time and place, pre-World War II Brooklyn, because of its references to people and events of the period.

The story centers around Mortimer Brewster (David Nikithser), a New York drama critic (!) who pays frequent visits to his elderly maiden aunts, Abby (Phyllis Josephson) and Martha (Debbi Nanni-Zacher). He is accustomed to the antics of his brother Teddy (Gary Werner), who thinks he is Theodore Roosevelt and goes charging up the stairs believing he is on San Juan Hill. But when Mortimer discovers a dead body in the window seat and tells his aunts that Teddy has killed a man, he is shocked to learn that the aunts have poisoned the poor guy with elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine and “just a pinch of cyanide.” Not only that, but there are 11 others in the basement who have met the same fate—except the first one, who died of a heart attack and started the whole thing. Teddy has buried these “yellow fever victims” in the “locks” he has dug for the “Panama Canal.” As though all this were not enough, another brother, Jonathan (Paul Brodo), shows up. He is a homicidal maniac resembling Boris Karloff (who played him in the original Broadway production), thanks to his tipsy companion, a plastic surgeon called Dr. (Herman) Einstein (Alfie Mannino). They also have a body to dispose of. Mortimer tells his fiancée, Elaine (Jaclyn Clark), that he cannot marry her because “insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops.” Lots of action, both scary and hilarious, follows. Some of it involves well-meaning local policemen, one of them an aspiring playwright. But why tell any more? Even if you know the story or have been in the play, it’s still great fun.

Phyllis Josephson, David Nikithser, Debbi Nanni-Zacher in a scene from the classic ARSENIC AND OLD LACE at Haddonfield Plays and Players. (Photo credit: David Gold)

A show like this usually inspires great comic performances, and this production, under the able direction of Jeanne Gold, is no exception. Josephson and Nanni-Zacher are all sweet innocence as the aunts; they have no idea that what they are doing might be wrong. They just think they are helping lonely old men find peace. However, Martha seems to be enjoying it a bit too much.  Nikithser is a master of the “take” as he encounters one shock after another. Werner is hysterically funny as Teddy. Brodo, tall and properly sinister, is a really creepy Jonathan. Mannino is such a lovable Einstein, the audience is glad to see him escape the law. Speaking of the law, Rich Lanci underplays the playwriting cop; this character needs more punch. Anthony Wilcox is outstanding as Rooney, the tough, authoritarian police lieutenant who is not as smart as he thinks he is.

The set, designed by Dan Boris, is not as ornate or elaborate as the usual “Brewster family living room” set, but it serves its purpose, and there are plenty of stairs for Teddy to scale as he charges upward. Lighting and sound are ideal. All in all, onstage and offstage talent combine to make this a memorable production of a classic comedy of the American theatre.

by Joseph Kesselring
Directed by Jeanne Gold
April 26 – May 12, 2012
Haddonfield Plays and Players
957 E. Atlantic Avenue
Haddonfield, NJ 08033
(856) 429-8139

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