Arsenic

Arsenic and Old Lace runs through Jan. 20 at Town Theatre.

Is Columbia ready for a second comedy about serial killers in just three months? Town Theatre is counting on it with a revival of Joseph Kesselring’s venerable black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace. The play ran for three and a half years on Broadway in the 1940s, inspired a popular Frank Capra film version starring Cary Grant, and has been a staple of local and high school theater ever since. Rest assured, though — while a dead body or two is seen in semi-darkness, and several dozen more victims are referenced, all homicides occur off-stage before the play begins. Unlike Trustus Theatre’s recent Silence! The Musical, the fun here is entirely G-rated. 

Taking its title from a line by Carl Sandburg that referenced sentimental novels of the late Victorian era, Arsenic explores the “charitable” work of the genteel Brewster sisters, Abby (Kathy Hartzog) and Martha (Leah McNeely Tudor). The delightfully dotty old ladies gleefully poison elderly gentlemen in order to send them on to their eternal reward. Meanwhile, Nephew Teddy (Clayton King, who took over the role late into rehearsals from ailing Corey Langley) thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt, storming San Juan Hill every time he climbs the stairs, and dutifully burying all corpses in the basement, believing them to be yellow fever victims at the Panama Canal. Teddy’s brother Jonathan (Michael Sugar) left home decades earlier, becoming a more traditional gangland killer who specializes in extended torture. Brother Mortimer (Chip Collins) directs his malice in a more productive manner as a tart-tongued drama critic with a penchant for witticisms worthy of Oscar Wilde, explaining to love interest Elaine (Sarah Strobolakos), “Insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops.” 

At an opening weekend performance, the ladies proficiently set the comedic tone necessary to make the outlandish proceedings believable, with characterizations that recalled the stylized, fast-paced acting style of vintage screwball comedies. Hartzog has played plenty of feisty older ladies in her career, but here showed a softer, sweeter, more delicate side — while planning more murders, of course. Strobolakos channeled the type of independent, free-spirited heroine so often played in classic films by Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn and other assertive beauties. Much of the first act script is consumed with complex but necessary exposition, but with impeccable timing, these three performers drew the audience into the increasingly baroque plotline. Even their hairstyles (wigs were credited to David Swicegood) and dresses (designed by custumer Jillian Carey) screamed authenticity. 

Bill DeWitt’s accent wandered around most of Europe as the ostensibly German Dr. Einstein, but the actor generated sympathy and plenty of laughter as the plastic surgeon who accidentally made Jonathan look like Boris Karloff — a meta-joke before meta was cool, as Karloff played the role in the original Broadway production. Sugar didn’t really resemble Karloff, although he favored Tim Curry. His makeup, presumably intended to signify scars and/or bruises, didn’t read very convincingly to the audience, and looked to me more like smudges of dirt. Still, the actor displayed a great knack for comic banter, if not necessarily menace. Collins provided a stalwart and appealing bastion of normalcy amid the chaos, gradually growing more manic as the plot thickened and the body count rose. If there were a fantasy theater league, my team would have seen Sugar’s sardonic manner employed as Mortimer, Collins’s dignity put to use as Teddy in his most presidential moments, leaving King to play the killer Jonathan — especially since without his Roosevelt wig and mustache, the actor might look a bit like Tower of London-era Karloff.  

Danny Harrington’s elegant set withstood a nearly endless series of entrances, exits, slammed doors and charges up the stairs, and numerous lighting and sound cues coincided with the action with precision. I did find some color choices — light blue wallpaper with a bold floral design, rich red interior paint, light brown woodwork — to be more garish than one might expect for a Victorian-era home, and scenes that played out in darkness could have benefited from additional illumination. Set dressing was sometimes an issue too, with a table preventing a clear view of an important window seat area from where I sat on the third row. Nevertheless, director Allison McNeely ensured that rapid-fire line delivery kept one’s attention focused on the dialogue and storyline.

Arsenic and Old Lace is nothing more than fun for fun’s sake, but I’ve always felt it is perhaps the best stage representation of screwball comedy, a film style that blended the repartee of British drawing room comedy and the frenetic pace of French farce into a uniquely American style. This production wisely doesn’t try to update the material, but instead uncovers the play’s inherent humor and appeal through skillful acting and characterization.   

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