Unlike the gentlemen in its famous cellar, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE has seen many revivals, the latest being at the Village Playbox in Haddon Heights. Joseph Kesselring’s only successful play, set in pre-World War II Brooklyn, was first presented on Broadway 75 years ago and still has audiences laughing at its macabre but hilarious jokes.
Christie Jensen and Marti Palmieri are superb as sisters Abby and Martha Brewster, all sweetness and light as they administer the final solution to lonely old men in a glass of their homemade elderberry wine. This potent potion contains arsenic, strychnine and “just a pinch of cyanide.” Their nephew, Teddy, delightfully played by Tom Lorenz, thinks he is Theodore Roosevelt and digs “locks for the Panama Canal” in the cellar. These soon become graves for the “yellow fever victims” his aunts present to him. He also charges up “San Juan Hill” (the stairs) and blows his bugle at all hours, disturbing the neighbors and prompting frequent visits by the local police.
Another nephew, Mortimer (Sean O’Shea), a New York theatre critic, visits his aunts often, not only because he is fond of them, but he is also in love with (and eventually engaged to) Elaine (Nicole Gross), daughter of the minister next door. But while searching for some papers, he discovers the body of the aunts’ latest “gentleman” in a window seat. He thinks Teddy has killed the man, but soon finds out the truth. He frantically tries to get out of the review he was heading for, without luck.
As if all this were not enough, unexpected visitors show up. One is another nephew, Jonathan Brewster (Mark Karcher), a homicidal maniac who looks like horror movie actor Boris Karloff. This is the fault of his sidekick, Dr. Einstein (Joe Zachowsko), a tipsy plastic surgeon. They have their own body in their car trunk. They hope to make the Brewster house their hideout, but Mortimer and the aunts can’t wait to get rid of them. You probably know how it all turns out, but it’s fun to watch.
The actors do a fine job with a fascinating cast of characters under the able direction of Michael Hicks. O’Shea and Gross are appealing as Mortimer and Elaine. Karcher is truly sinister as Jonathan, and Zachowski is so sympathetic as his reluctant accomplice that you hope he gets away. The police—Jason Pollock as Officer Brophy, Doug Cohen as Lieutenant Rooney, and Bob Kennedy as would-be playwright Officer O’Hara—are excellent. O’Hara even speaks with an Irish brogue, not always heard with this character. Stephen Jauregui impressively plays both Reverend Harper at the beginning of the play and Mr. Witherspoon from Happy Dale Sanitarium at the end. Vic Arlington is amusing as Mr. Gibbs, who narrowly escapes joining the gentlemen in the cellar.
The set, usually on two levels, must have been a challenge on a small stage, but the problem is solved by having Teddy charge up a real set of steps at one side of the stage.
So here’s to Playbox—but don’t drink the toast with elderberry wine!
ARSENIC AND OLD LACE
by Joseph Kesselring
Directed by Michael Hicks
November 1-16, 2013
The Village Playbox
First Presbyterian Church
7th and Green Streets
Haddon Heights, NJ 08035